Cellular Curtain: West Kootenays not on short list for more Telus cell phone coverage

Telus is funding 80 new cellular sites in B.C. this year. The West Kootenays didn't make the list. Despite hundreds of kilometers of highways with no cellular signal - and pleas from local officials to bring remote Arrow Lakes areas into the cellular age - everyone from stranded travelers to emergency responders is without communication once they hit the cellular curtain on the road to either Revelstoke or Vernon.

  • May. 4, 2011 10:00 a.m.

Telus is funding 80 new cellular sites in B.C. this year. The West Kootenays didn’t make the list.

Despite hundreds of kilometers of highways with no cellular signal – and pleas from local officials to bring remote Arrow Lakes areas into the cellular age – everyone from stranded travelers to emergency responders is without communication once they hit the cellular curtain on the road to either Revelstoke or Vernon.

Cell phone users making their way through the rugged valleys and hairpin turns do so in cellular darkness.

“It’s pretty bad when you have an accident and you have to drive even to get a call out for help,” said Nakusp Mayor Karen Hamling.

“We’ve written several letters to Telus trying to get them to expand service. “We’ve been going on that very issue – either the Revelstoke way or the Vernon way, you lose cell (coverage), and for emergency purposes it’s very important to have it,” she said.

“We keep pushing them to do it, but so far – nothing,” Hamling said.

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As the sirens faded on their way to the Fauquier and Needles ferry on April 28, those listening to the scanners listened for more news. The few sketchy details were grim: Local emergency help was sought for an apparent head-on collision on the Monashee summit.

Crews dispatched radioed back to seek help holding the ferry on the Nakusp side so they could go straight across.

First responders repeatedly requested updates, reminding the dispatcher they were about to move out of signal range.

In fact, once the ambulance crossed the ferry to the Needles side, there wouldn’t even be the single payphone that once stood on “the Vernon side.”

They were going dark. No radio, no cell, no word – and no ability to ask for additional assistance or resources, short of sending someone back into range.

The Kootenays are full of cellular dead zones – highways in the Slocan area, from Castlegar to Nelson – all likely to produce a “Call failed” message on the little screen.

The trouble is what makes the Kootenays so beautiful. Tall peaks, winding roads, long lakes, few people.

“B.C. has an exceedingly challenging geography – much more challenging than Alberta. It also has a dispersed population – and the Arrow Lakes area has both. It is a very challenging undertaking and an expensive one,” said Telus spokesman and longtime Kootenays resident Shawn Hall.

“We’re well aware of local interest in cell phone coverage along that stretch of highway. We don’t have any current plans. We’re certainly aware of local demand. We want to be able to make our investment back – it can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million to install a wireless site.

“We’re investing $1.7 billion in network infrastructure across Canada and $670 million in B.C. this year – a big chunk of that is 80 new wireless sites in B.C.,” Hall said. “Over the last decade, we’ve spent $24 billion in infrastructure.”

Raised in Nelson, Hall is well acquainted with the gaps in cell service that continue to plague his home region.

“We’re well aware there are highway corridors and smaller communities that don’t have wireless service at the moment,” he said, citing Fauquier and Burton as no-cell zones.

“We’re continuing to install additional cell sites every year to coverage gaps.” Each wireless site costs between $500,000 and $2 million, he said.

“It depends on the kind of site it is and how far it is from our infrastructure, and the geography,” Hall said.

“We actually provide wireless service to about 99 percent of B.C.’s population. We’re installing approximately 80 wireless sites this year in B.C. Some of that is urban. We’re adding additional capacity. The demand for wireless service is growing at an extreme  rate – it’s doubling every year, and we are continuing to install new sites in urban areas and to expand more and more,” he said.

“Certainly the West Kootenays are on our radar screen – it’s a big project,” Hall said.

“We’re dedicated to continuing to provide service in rural areas.”

Human mischief is apparently to blame for the removal of the last pay phone on the Vernon side of the Fauquier ferry.

The pay phone at the ferry landing in Needles was damaged by vandals and then removed recently, leaving travelers dependent on their ability to get to a Fauquier payphone at the campground on the highway, one at Fauquier Service on Oak Street or at J&S Snacks, also on Oak Street.

“We did have a phone on the Vernon side of the ferry landing, and it was stolen in October. It was dragged away by a vehicle – someone tied a  chain on it and dragged it away,” he said.

“It was found 20km away on a dirt road – it had been smashed to pieces.”

The site itself was heavily damaged in the attack; Hall estimated replacing the phone would cost $5,000 or more. Telus isn’t planning on replacing it, he said.

“Given the low use on the phone and the fact that there are several more phones in the area, we decided not to replace it,” he said.

“It saw very little use – it was a marginal phone to begin with, breaking even or losing money.”

The company would like some help from the community in solving the communication issue, Hall said.

“We’ve seen projects made doable when they’ve identified a site where we can put a site without having to build a new tower. That can cut costs in half, and we’re certainly interested in those kinds of ideas,” he said.

“We will regularly work with communities – if people have an idea about how to work with them … we want to engage in those conversations. We have a track record of working with the community to make minor miracles happen in situations like this,” he said, citing the lone Burton pay phone as a good example of collaboration betwee Telus and the community.

“Last year, the BGS closed down, and that’s where the phone was. We had to pull the phone out because the landlord had closed it down and we have to have a willing landlord for a phone,” Hall said.

“For a time, Burton didn’t have a payphone. We heard from the local community association that a phone was very important, and we worked with them to identify other potential sites,” he said. “They couldn’t find a landlord willing to have a phone on their property.”

With the help of the B.C. Highways ministry, a spot just outside the Caribou service station got the green light.

“We were able to reinstall the phone there. That was made possible between work with the payphone folks and a local community association. They came up with great ideas, potential sites and where the phone might go, and in the end one of those ideas worked. Huzzah, as they say – that looks like a real success story to us,” Hall said.

“We’ve made good progress and will continue to do so – it’s a big undertaking. If you have any ideas about where to install a site, we’d love to hear from you … We are the only one that has made a significant investment in the West Kootenays.”