Officials with Bell and Eastlink defended their companies Wednesday, after Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston accused telecommunications providers of “poor participation” during the response to post-tropical storm Fiona.
The fierce storm swept through Atlantic Canada over the weekend, bringing hurricane-force winds and leaving many without power — and, in some cases, the ability to communicate.
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, more than 91,000 homes and businesses in Nova Scotia were still without electricity.
The outages, which started early Saturday and peaked at around 415,000 customers without power, have had an impact on cellphone service because the backup batteries in cellphone towers were dying.
A statement from the province Wednesday said “many” Nova Scotians were still without access to reliable communications four days after the storm, impeding their ability to call 911 in an emergency.
“Nova Scotians have questions about when their service will be restored, how widespread the outages are and what the companies plan to do to ensure this never happens again,” said Houston.
“It is unacceptable that there are Nova Scotians who can’t call 911 or connect with loved ones during this difficult time. There is no question we need our telecommunications companies to step up and be more transparent.”
In a letter to François-Philippe Champagne, the federal minister of Innovation, Science and Industry — and the minister responsible for telecommunications — Houston said he was disappointed “with the poor participation and support from telecommunications companies before, during and after this event.”
He said the province’s Emergency Management Office (EMO) began preparing for Fiona a week before the storm arrived, and the office contacted “key critical infrastructure partners” to request that they send a representative to the provincial coordination centre.
Initially, not a single telecommunications company was willing to send someone, Houston said.
“Only after complaints from EMO to their senior leadership did Bell agree to send an agency representative in person, and they attended two days before announcing they were working virtually,” the letter said.
It said Eastlink, Rogers and Telus took part in briefings and communicated with staff virtually, but declined to attend the provincial coordination centre in-person during the initial response.
“It was only after three days and public and media pressure that the companies sent representatives in person to the (centre,)” the letter said.
“While improvements have been made to cellular and landline service, there are still many cell towers operating on generators and service is unreliable in areas of Cape Breton.”
Houston asked Champagne to “consider all potential legislative and regulatory means to hold telecommunications companies accountable for participating in emergency planning, preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery to the fullest extent possible.”
In a tweet, Champagne said he will be convening with telecom CEOs “to go over the situation experienced by many Canadians.”
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“Everyone expects more reliability & transparency,” the tweet said.
Premier’s comments ‘unfair’
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, representatives from both Bell and Eastlink said their teams were working around the clock to restore service to their customers.
Lee Bragg, executive vice-chair of Eastlink, said he found the premier’s comments “unfair” given the magnitude of the storm.
“This particular storm was massive, but I will say – in my experience going through Dorian and Hurricane Juan – we had a higher level of coordination with all our other telecom and infrastructure partners,” he said.
“I do understand the premier’s perspective. Everybody wants everything to work all the time, but the challenge is sometimes it’s not possible.”
Bragg said Eastlink was in “constant” communication with federal Innovation Minister Champagne about the situation.
As well, the company said in a statement that it was in communication with Nova Scotia Power, EMO and other key partners since before the storm hit. In the aftermath, the top priority was assessing the damage, and once the work was complete, a liaison was placed in the provincial command centre, it said.
According to the statement, Eastlink also reached out to the premier the day after the storm “to ensure the Premier heard from us to understand how our network fared, how our teams prepared and the work our teams are doing to restore customers and to ensure he had a direct line into us for any follow up.”
“This was the most coordinated effort I’d seen with any other event like this,” Bragg said during the news conference.
“So I think it’s a little unfair to be critical when we’ve done a better job than we’ve ever done before, in a higher level of communication and coordination than we’ve ever had.
“Obviously, it’s never perfect, but I just think maybe … (Houston) didn’t have all the information available.”
His comments were echoed by Geoff Moore, Bell’s director of network operations. Moore said a representative from Bell was at the Emergency Management Office on Friday before the storm hit, and crews have since been working around the clock to restore service.
Moore acknowledged communication could always be better and said the company is always looking at ways to improve.
“It’s about learning, it’s about growing, it’s about improving,” he said Wednesday.
“We can’t forget that we had a huge hurricane impact Nova Scotia, so I think an expectation of service never going down isn’t something that is reasonable, given the magnitude of the event that hit us.”
Bragg and Moore both said it’s hard to say how many customers were impacted by outages, given the overlapping nature of cell networks, but service has been restored to the majority of customers.
As well, in a statement, Bell spokesperson Katie Hatfield said a representative from Bell took part in “every EMO media availability we’ve been asked to take part in and are committed to keeping customers updated through the media, our social media channels, websites, call centres and stores.”
She said Bell was only ever asked to participate in news briefings on Sept. 25 and on Wednesday.
She also said both 911 and Bell’s emergency responder network remained fully functional throughout the storm and its aftermath.
Rogers spokesperson Nilani Logeswaran said in a statement that the company took steps to prepare for Fiona and had “robust measures and processes to respond as needed.”
“This included working in close collaboration with provincial and federal partners and with other telecommunication providers to support one another,” the statement said.
“As impacted areas were cleared from downed lines or trees, our local teams were able to restore services as quickly as possible. We now have 99% of services restored across the region.”
TELUS spokesperson Jacinthe Beaulieu said in a statement that the company proactively contacted EMO on Sept. 21, “offering our support and assistance in anticipation of Hurricane Fiona.”
Beaulieu also said TELUS attended 15 consecutive EMO calls between Sept. 23 and 27, and successfully coordinated the office’s requests, including relaying safety messages to the affected communities.
“We continue to collaborate with and support our network partners that own the infrastructure in the area to restore service as soon as possible and to deploy critical equipment, including generators and batteries,” Beaulieu said.
“The vast majority of the mobility service is now operational. The interruption is a result of the power outage and severe weather conditions.”
— with files from The Canadian Press