Google Maps photo Cellular phone coverage areas between Campbell River and Port McNeill

North Islanders call for cell service in gaping Island Highway hole

With a few exceptions, service mostly non-existent between Campbell River and Port McNeill

Lack of cell phone service on the Island Highway north of Campbell River is more than an inconvenience, it’s an economic anchor, and it could be a matter of life and death.

That’s the position of a Sayward-based push to ensure reliable service along the highway all the way to Port Hardy.

The campaign, from the Sayward Futures Society and Sayward Tourism Committee, was born out of a tragic incident where a woman was driving along Highway 19 and crashed her car into the side of the road. Unable to call emergency services the woman was left at the scene of the crash for a prolonged time without help.

“(It’s) fundamentally about safety on the highway,” Sayward Futures Society director Alex Turner said. “There’s a possibility of various accidents, especially during the winter. The hill going up from Robert’s Lake, that’s where you lose coverage, and then no service on the highway. (Drivers are) without service the whole highway, except two possible spots with coverage at Woss and Telegraph Cove.”

He also explained that because there are so few networks and cellular carriers in the area that CRTC has a responsibility to step in, perhaps through funding cellular towers with grants.

“The current service provider has stated that they have no intention of providing this service in the foreseeable future,” the campaign letter reads. “Our recourse is to appeal to the Canadian Radio-television Communications Commission (CRTC). The Commission can require the service provider to ensure that there is continuous service on the full length of the highway.”

In addition to safety issues, concerns also relate to how rural areas may be becoming less relevant for tourists destinations, especially visitor centres, and how travellers are more reliant on cell phone coverage when visiting the North Island. Many tourists are basing their travelling on local tourism businesses’ advice. Cellular phone service in uncovered areas in the North Island may allow local tourism groups and tourist operators to aid travellers in their expeditions.

“The campaign started because the tourism committee has come to realize that tourism these days works through electronic means. 85 per cent of tourism bookings are made on the road as they travel,” Turner said. “(Sayward needs to) have to have connectivity here for our tourism group on the highway.”

Regional District of Mt. Waddington’s chief administrative officer Greg Fletcher confirms there is a grant program available for communities under 5,000 population, which is called “Rural and Northern Communities Infrastructure” under Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program.

The grant funding includes internet and cellular infrastructure and covers 100 per cent of the project costs. Sayward would need to apply by Jan. 23, 2019 for the grant funding.

Organizers encourage concerned citizens to write the CRTC in support of the campaign.

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