Many Nova Scotians seeking to call for help or communicate with family when post-tropical storm Fiona slammed into the region over the weekend were simply unlucky, even those who have landlines.
Anne Camozzi, who lives alone just outside Antigonish, N.S., and uses a wheelchair, said at the height of the storm on Saturday she had no power, internet or service cell phone or working landline.
“I don’t think I could have called 911. And I was very scared because the situation here was very serious. We had 90 mph winds and there was debris hitting my windows. What would I have done if I had to evacuate? Camozzi said.
“Fortunately, I got through this emergency well, but if I hadn’t, how could I have communicated with anyone?”
Most landlines in the province and across Canada now use fiber optic internet cables to operate, rather than the underground copper wires laid decades ago.
Telecom companies tout fiber optic cables as faster and more efficient for landline phone use, but they depend on mains power and an internet connection to function. When the electricity goes out, landlines shut down unless there is a backup battery which usually lasts another few hours.
Some people, especially in rural areas, still have copper cables for their landlines that rely on batteries that can last less than 12 hours after a power outage.
Jim Stewart of Chance Harbour, Nova Scotia is one of those people still waiting for power in Pictou County. Her cell phone now works sporadically, but her copper landline is dead.
“It’s like living on Gilligan’s Island,” he said.
Stewart said he remembers the days when the landline never went out, even long after a major storm or power outage. He said he wonders why phone systems haven’t improved in recent years, even in light of major impacts from storms like Juan and Dorian.
“Why don’t we learn from our mistakes?” said Stewart. “Once things get back to normal and the power comes back, everyone kind of forgets what happened.”
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) urges people with fiber optic landlines to use an “alternative telephone service” such as a cell phone “to increase the reliability of your access to emergency services during of any interruption of service”.
But when all cellular networks are down, as happened during Fiona, access to 911 can be limited or non-existent with cell phones.
There are also still many elderly people, or others who have chosen not to cut the cord, who rely on landlines.
Half of seniors don’t have a smartphone
Figures from Statistics Canada show that in 2020, 84.4% of Canadians owned a smartphone, but that number drops dramatically to 54.1% among those aged 65 and older. In 2019, only 15.2% of people aged 65 and over did not have a landline.
According to information Bell provided to the CRTC following Dorian in September 2019, fiber optic systems are “significantly more reliable” than copper-based networks.
In fact, Bell wrote that its fiber optic cable network in the Atlantic region was available throughout Dorian and its aftermath – “excluding situations where power was not available at customer premises. ” and where the damaged wires were causing a service outage.
In Canada, fixed Internet rollout has been relatively quiet compared to countries like the UK. In the UK there are various resources explaining the pros and cons of the technology, including a comprehensive website telling people how all phones will be connected via fiber by 2025.
Bell said its fiber network expansion program was halfway completed at the end of 2018, with the number of all-fiber connections reaching approximately 4.6 million homes and businesses in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and in Manitoba.
Eastlink spokeswoman Jill Laing said Tuesday that in Nova Scotia there were still 46,000 customers without internet – including 21,000 also without phone service – largely due to “problems with ‘feed”.
“These customers are dispersed throughout the region, with the hardest hit areas mirroring those hardest hit by power outages,” Laing said.
She said no Eastlink customers were on copper-wired landlines.
Calls for telecom accountability
In Antigonish, Camozzi said when she finally heard the “brave” homeworkers who called to check in once cell service resumed, her fear turned to anger.
“We live in 2022. And I don’t understand why telcos are allowed to get away with this,” Camozzi said.
Dominic LeBlanc, the federal infrastructure minister, told a press conference on Tuesday that the government had served “advice” that telecommunications companies should do whatever is necessary to make their systems more resilient.
“I’m very clear on behalf of the Government of Canada that we expect them to accept this responsibility,” LeBlanc said.