Monday, July 22, 2024

MRC resolution demands cell service for Western Pontiac

Waltham and Allumettes Island mayors say lack of reception a significant danger to local residents

by Camilla Faragalli
Western Pontiac
Feb. 12, 2024
As many residents in several of the municipalities that make up the Western Pontiac will attest, there is little to no cellphone service in much of the region.
Last month, mayors from two Western Pontiac municipalities made another push in a long line of efforts to change this.
At the Jan. 24 MRC Pontiac Council of Mayors meeting, Allumettes Island mayor Corey Spence and Waltham mayor Odette Godin tabled a motion demanding the western portion of Highway 148 in the MRC Pontiac, encompassing the municipalities of Mansfield and Pontefract, Waltham, and Allumettes Island “be granted immediate priority for the deployment of urgently needed Wireless Connectivity Services.”
According to the motion, the lack of cell reception in the area impacts residents, emergency services, the local economy, social health and the region’s overall connectivity.
The motion, passed by the council, also referenced documented emergencies in Waltham which have revealed the “life threatening consequences of unreliable cellular connectivity.”
This is a reality Waltham cottage owner Catherine Morin knows better than most.
Last October she was driving through Waltham when she was flagged down by a TransporAction driver.
The TransporAction driver was picking up a Waltham resident to accompany her to a medical appointment when she collapsed outside her home and became unresponsive. The driver did not have the cell reception needed to call 9-1-1, so stopped Morin for help.
“I tried to call 9-1-1, I got disconnected. I tried to call the police, I got disconnected, I kept calling both of them back,” said Morin, who then drove to the home of the municipality’s fire chief, about a kilometre and a half away, to get help.
But help did not come soon enough, and the resident passed away that day.
“The frustration was so overwhelming,” Morin said of her desperate attempt to reach emergency response services.
“They could have helped me help her, but instead we were too busy finding cellular [service].”
It is exactly this kind of tragedy Spence and Godin are hoping their motion will prevent in the future.
While motions to improve the region’s connectivity in the past, this one, according to Spence, is different.
“It highlights everything,” he told THE EQUITY, explaining it raises safety concerns, the government’s own promises for action, and even points to existing infrastructure that could be used to help address the problem.
“This has been a long-standing issue [here] since cell phones came out,” Spence said, “as the local representatives, what we can do about it is we can go to the higher echelons [of government], and make sure they’re aware.”
The resolution will be forwarded to François Legault, Premier of Quebec and André Fortin, MNA for Pontiac, among other provincial government officials.
Fibre Optic complicates connectivity
Evelyn Lowe Culleton and her husband are part-time residents of Allumettes Island who own and run a farm there.
According to Culleton, they were forced by Bell to remove the land-line they had had in place for 40 years, and replace it with a Fibre Optic connection, which was supposed to offer “improved connectivity.”
“We were very happy to have Fibre Optic finally on the island, but when they [Bell] brought it in, they didn’t do their due diligence,” Culleton told
THE EQUITY, explaining the company did not do a thorough study of the variables that exist on Allumettes Island, such as the lack of cell reception in the area.
“Why would Bell remove our land lines before they ensured cell coverage was available?” she asked.
In October of last year, Culleton and her husband woke one morning with no means of communicating with the outside world. Their Fibre Optic was down which, combined with the usual lack of cell phone reception and no more landline, left them completely isolated.
While this was a significant inconvenience for Culleton, who was unable to make the phone calls necessary to run her business, her bigger concern was for people like her disabled sister-in-law.
“It’s pretty scary for her not to have any connection,” Culleton said. “This has become a major, major safety issue. If the power goes out, you’re stranded. You have nothing.”
Allumettes Island has been particularly vulnerable to power outages in recent years. In 2019, the municipality experienced 75 power outages by Oct. 31, a record which was only set once before, in 2016. Last year a severe winter storm left Allumettes Island residents without power for three days.
Spence says these power outages leave residents, especially seniors and low-income families, in a very vulnerable position in times of emergency.
Keeping promises
Spence said both provincial and federal governments have made promises to ensure more reliable cellular networks are available in communities currently lacking them.
He cited the CAQ’s promise in 2022 of full cell coverage in Quebec’s regions by 2030, as well as a $57 million project announced in November of 2023 to see cellular service rolled out across many Quebec highways and Cree community access roads that are still without it.
Spence also pointed to the federal government’s promise to provide reliable cellular service to 98 per cent of Canadians by 2026, which the MRC resolution made specific mention of.
But Spence said he is not confident governments will fulfil their promises within proposed timelines.
“There’s been deaths and accidents in our stretch and yet nothing has been done,” he said.
“We’re looking now at 2024 and we don’t see any movement yet from the government, which means that they’re probably going to miss their deadline.”
Spence said while he understands there may not be a strong business case for big telecommunication companies to install a brand new cell phone tower in Western Pontiac, given the low population density of the area and the fact that most people make due by using Wifi at home and cellular service when they are off the island, less costly solutions are possible.
According to the motion put forward at the Jan. 24 MRC meeting, two government-owned towers in the region, one in Chapeau and one in Sheenboro, could be leveraged for immediate solutions.
“It’s just a matter of having the Bells or the Rogers stick their equipment on it . . . But why would they invest in that infrastructure unless the governments forced them to,” Spence said.
According to Spence, that timeline for getting cellular service to the area will be at least two years long.
“There’s municipal approvals, there’s provincial approvals, there’s studies on where the best places to put these towers are, and local people need to get involved, because they might not want a cellphone tower right in their backyard.”


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