Why does the Fraser Canyon keep losing 911 service?

Questions after 911 service cut to hundreds of Fraser Canyon residents, who were told to find own way to help if possible.

By Tyler Olsen | August 17, 2022 |5:00 am

Hundreds of Fraser Canyon residents were left with no way to call for help over the weekend after Telus cut coverage to repair a fire-damage fibre. With no 911 coverage for three hours, residents of Yale, Spuzzum, Boston Bar, and adjacent First Nations were told to find their own way to a hospital, police station, or fire hall. It was the third time in the last year that 911 service had been knocked out for the canyon.

The outages are likely avoidable, according to one expert.

A Telus spokesperson wrote in an email that the most-recent outage was unavoidable because backup lines were also threatened by other wildfires, and because its competitors hadn’t invested in infrastructure in the area.

“We could usually avoid a disruption while completing these repairs by moving customers to our other fibre lines in the area,” Telus communications manager Lena Chen wrote in an email, “however this was an unusual situation as those back-up fibre lines are currently affected by other wildfires, making this timely repair extremely important.”

Chen said that, typically, cellphone users could access 911 on a competitor’s network, but said that none operate in the Fraser Canyon. She specifically identified Shaw/Freedom Mobile and Rogers.

But the Fraser Canyon has seen repeated 911 outages over the last year. “Maintenance” knocked out 911 service in Boston Bar for around 12 hours last December. And just last month, a single-car accident also left Telus customers in the canyon north of Hell’s Gate without the ability to dial for help.

Telus is also not the only provider in much of the Fraser Canyon. Bell’s network also covers the most populated areas of the canyon and can be accessed by Bell and Virgin Mobile customers. And Telus and other telecommunication companies have mobile units that can provide temporary service to prevent disruptions.

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Telecom companies can make deals with competition

As Telus noted, mobile carriers can strike deals with competitors to allow customers to access other networks in emergency cases. The Telus spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up inquiry about why Telus did not or could not utilize Bell’s network to provide service. (Bell and Virgin also did not respond to questions about their Fraser Canyon network; it’s possible that the Bell network is dependent on Telus’s)

A telecom expert who spoke to The Current said such arrangements are easy to facilitate when infrastructure is pre-existing.

“As long as there’s a competitor in town that doesn’t have an outage, it’s easy peasy,” said the expert, who has worked in telecommunications for decades and asked not to be named because it would jeopardize future work in the industry.

But even if a competitor’s network is not available, the expert said telecom companies can take other actions to provide 911 service when their network goes down—especially when a company knows in advance that an outage will occur.

He pointed to Telus’ SatCOLT trucks, which the company unveiled more than a decade ago. The trucks cost Telus more than $1 million. When the company acquired them, they said the trucks were designed for emergencies and could provide wireless internet to more than 1,000 users.

While Telus hasn’t mentioned the trucks online frequently , other telecoms across North America have continued to roll out the vehicles, which allow anyone within range to make 911 calls, according to a Forbes article from earlier this year. In 2019, AT&T in the United States said they had acquired a new SatCOLT. The company now has a fleet of the trucks as part of that country’s FirstNet emergency telecommunications network. The trucks are stationed around the United States so that one is within six hours of “virtually any spot” in the continental United States and can be moved when an emergency occurs.

Chen, Telus’s spokesperson, wrote in an email that last weekend’s outage occurred with “about 24 hours or less” notice. That was too tight of a timeline to use a mobile unit, she wrote.

“In certain scenarios we can bring in temporary wireless coverage through a cellular tower in wheels (COW) to prevent a service disruption,” she wrote in an email. “In this case our crews were given a very tight timeframe as to when it was safe to go in and repair the fibre lines, and we weren’t able to bring in a COW on such short notice.”

A variety of other options also exist, including routing 911 calls via satellite, the expert said—and not all are expensive.

“You can still make things work in almost any location if you’re creative enough,” he told The Current.

It’s unclear if there were any severe ramifications. The Current contacted Ecomm, the province’s 911 provider, but they said they do not have localized data on typical call volumes for the area affected last weekend. The Current also sought comment on the outage from the provincial and federal public safety ministries.

While the provincial ministry did not provide a comment, a spokesperson for the federal government noted that Public Safety Minister François-Philippe Champagne told larger telecoms last month “to develop agreements within 60 days on emergency roaming, mutual assistance, and improving public awareness around telecommunications emergencies.”

That came after Rogers experienced a cross-country outage that left many unable to get 911 assistance.

Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

Get FV Current in your inbox.

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By filling out the form above, you consent to receive emails from Fraser Valley Current. You can unsubscribe at any time. View our privacy policy here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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