Rural Saskatchewan residents calling for cell service along highways after ‘many serious accidents’

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WATCH: Residents in rural Saskatchewan are raising safety concerns about having to drive hours without cell service, after being snubbed in Sasktel's latest plan to build 74 cell towers in rural parts of the province – Oct 4, 2020

One of the hazards of road tripping outside Saskatoon can be the hours on the road without cell service, but for the people living in rural municipalities, it’s more than an inconvenience.

Residents are raising safety concerns about having to drive hours without cell service.

SaskTel recently announced it will be building 74 new cell towers in rural Saskatchewan to help better connect the whole province.

Read more: SaskTel estimates $10.7M loss due to coronavirus pandemic, still turns hefty profit

That’s not going to be much help for the route Elizabeth Wooley has to take.

She and her husband live in Denare Beach in northern Saskatchewan and needed to travel this summer to Saskatoon for medical appointments and surgery.

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Since June, she’s made the five-hour drive along Highway 106 seven times.

There’s no cell service for much of the trip, she said, something that’s had her “white-knuckle” the drive before.

“Driving that road without a cellphone is very sketchy,” she said.

“There is some times that you might see cars coming and going, sometimes you might not, and the chances are if you’ve had an accident … very few people stop on that road only because they’re very nervous about stopping.”

Wooley isn’t the only person disappointed to be left out of the new cell tower plan.

The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) said cell connectivity is a huge issue for many rural communities.

Read more: Lack of consistent, reliable internet service holding rural Saskatchewan back: SARM president

“We’ve heard reports of people having accidents and having to, in some cases, walk several miles before they could find someone, or if they’re lucky enough somebody else will come along and find them,” said SARM president Ray Orb.

That was the situation Rebecca Ziegler’s teenager found himself in along Highway 106 this summer.

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“My 16-year-old child had to decide the least scary person to hitchhike with because his car broke down and (he) couldn’t call anyone,” she wrote in a Facebook message to Global News.

Luckily, she said a couple gave her son a lift, but she said she fears that experience could have ended much worse.

Lynne Rach lived for years in Creighton and Flin Flon. One winter her car hit a patch of black ice along Highway 106.

“My car flipped and went into the ditch on its side,” she wrote in an email to Global News. “I don’t know how long I was unconscious.”

She said a passing truck found her and drove her to hospital in Prince Albert.

“Am praying the government will see it from our point of view,” she said regarding building more cell towers in the area.

“People have been paying taxes for years and it seems this part of the province is always overlooked.”

Read more: Election wish list: Economic recovery a top priority for Saskatchewan industries

SARM said not having service along long stretches of road has caused safety issues, with ambulances and RCMP having trouble reaching people sometimes, something especially dangerous during Saskatchewan’s winters.

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Samantha Bloomfield knows first-hand how bad accidents along Highway 106 can get.

Bloomfield owns Bloomfield’s Resort, a popular stopover spot for travellers between Smeaton and Flin Flon. The resort was destroyed by a fire in 2019, but before that she said they were approached “a lot” by travellers in need.

“This may have been for medical reasons, a flat tire, someone has hit the ditch or in some cases fatal car accidents,” she wrote in an email to Global News.

“There have been many very serious accidents over the years,” she said, adding she sees a “significant” delay in emergency services reaching people.

Her business also runs a tow truck, and she said they’ve had to rescue people “countless times” at all hours of the night. “These people sometimes have children waiting along the road for someone to come along,” she wrote.

Read more: Conspiracy theorists burn 5G towers, claiming link to COVID-19

Bloomfield is working to rebuild her business after the fire, but in the meantime it’s widened the gap between the few services along Highway 106.

“We were a staple for people in need and without one service in operation what will happen?” she asked.

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SARM said it wants the province to prioritize putting cell towers in more rural areas.

In an email to Global News, SaskTel spokesperson Greg Jacobs wrote: “the topography of the land (of Northern Saskatchewan) severely limits the serving area of wireless services, combined with the lengthy distances between communities and the lower population densities it’s very costly to bring services to this part of the province.”

Jacobs wrote SaskTel is aware of service problems along Highway 106 and is looking at ways to improve them.

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