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Communications breakdown

In the wake of last week’s fire, Crystal City residents have joined the rural Manitobans 
taking cellphone companies to task for what they say is subpar coverage

Crystal City residents say that poor cell coverage compounded the crisis caused by a fire last week.

That’s when fire erupted from the top of the local grain elevator, spewing ash and embers into the air, razing the elevator to the ground and setting a hardware store ablaze.

“I heard of one firefighter who was trying to send out text messages to bring in water,” local farmer Landon Friesen said. “He sent out 20 texts. Not one of them went out, because there was no service.”

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Emergency crews responded to the fire around 6 p.m. on Aug. 20 after reports of what sounded like an explosion and flames in the top section of the elevator, CBC later reported.

Friesen, who farms east of Crystal City, tried contacting friends soon after hearing about the blaze, but could not connect.

A group of farmers eventually connected over Twitter, looking for updates and organizing their own response. Several in the group offered to haul water or relayed information on to those who had equipment available.

The group ended up feeding water into portable pools as community fire departments worked to combat the flames.

“Even then, you couldn’t even send out a text,” Friesen said. “There was just no service in town and we’re like 14 kilometres from the tower, not even.”

The shared cell tower is located just north of Pilot Mound, a community about eight kilometres northeast of Crystal City.

Kyle Holman, who farms near the U.S.-Canada border south of Crystal City, was on his combine when he heard the news and rushed to join the firefighting efforts.

“None of us had radios and stuff like that like the firefighters,” he said. “Guys are on Twitter or texting, you know, where do I go? How do I get there? What’s the best way to come into town? Stuff like that.”

Some of those messages only arrived on his phone an hour later, he said, sometimes after he had already met the messager face to face.

“There were also other volunteers and stuff that were co-ordinating and they’d said, ‘We were trying to phone and text,’ and stuff wasn’t going through and replies weren’t getting sent back,” Holman said.

Dangerous situation

The lack of service is not unusual, both Friesen and Holman say.

Holman estimates that up to half of the town of Crystal City experiences reception issues, unless residents have installed a cell booster.

Many locals and public buildings, such as the hall, arena and friendship centre, have turned to boosters to help improve signal, he said.

“Out of all the calls I make, probably half of them drop at some point,” Friesen also said.

Friesen, who gets service with Rogers Communications, claims there are discrepancies between what is highlighted on the companies’ online coverage maps and actual service in the region.

Rogers Communications marks Pilot Mound and Crystal City well within its coverage boundaries, while both Telus and Bell MTS maps say the region gets LTE-Advanced service, and a wide buffer around that gets LTE service. Telus claims LTE signal extending to La Rivière, Somerset, Mariapolis, south to the international border and almost as far as Cartwright to the southwest, while the Bell MTS map marks LTE service through most of the region.

“Because of the nature of wireless service, coverage maps are a general guide of where service is available, and varying terrain, environmental factors and even device type can affect signal strength in more rural areas of the region,” a representative from Bell MTS said in an email.

A similar disclaimer is noted under online coverage maps published by Rogers Communications and Telus.

Friesen says he has been told the company can only confirm service within 10 kilometres of the tower.

“We’d love to see some better cell service,” he said, noting that rural customers are paying the same rates as those in cities. “Carry out your promises. You say you’re going to service our area, then actually do it. It’s extremely frustrating, and now, in an emergency situation, it’s dangerous.”

Holman and Friesen took to Twitter to express their frustration, sparking a thread of similar complaints both from Crystal City and other rural regions, many of whom say they feel ignored by telecommunication companies.

One user from Elgin, Man., suggested telecom officials drive along Highway 3 from Altona to Deloraine.

“You can call me,” he suggested. “Every time you drop the call or can’t dial me back you owe me a dollar. I’ll expect my $250 cheque at the end of your trip.”

Long-term problem

Within Crystal City, residents say they raised a similar outcry when an outdoor fair narrowly dodged a severe thunderstorm several years ago. Attendees had attempted to track the storm on mobile devices, Holman said, but could not load radar due to the poor coverage.

“It’s just kind of like beating your head against the wall,” he said. “If you complain on Twitter or wherever, they just always say, ‘(Direct message) your location and we’ll look into it,’ and all this. It’s sort of got to the point of, why would I waste my time doing that? Nothing comes of it and nothing changes. Every supposed upgrade to the tower seems to make things worse.”

The issue made headlines in July, when a tornado ripped through Alonsa east of Riding Mountain National Park, killing one person. Residents later said they did not receive Environment Canada alerts on their phones, while the municipality’s CAO, Pamela Shul, said lack of service kept local government or public services from sounding the alarm, CBC reported at the time.

Cell service had largely gone down in the area following upgrades.

Towers in the area had recently been upgraded to LTE-Advanced, a Bell MTS spokesperson told CBC.

The spokesperson went on to say some areas, many of which had low coverage and used HSPA networks incompatible with the alert notifications, may have seen their coverage slip further and that the company was working on the problem.

Cell coverage also sparked complaints during the last Keystone Agricultural Producers advisory council meeting.

Companies respond

When reached for comment, Telus says it is aware of complaints.

“We understand there are concerns about the quality of service in the Crystal City area, and want to assure our customers that their network experience is a priority for us,” Telus said in an emailed statement.

Bell MTS maintains that coverage in Crystal City is, “quite extensive in the town and the surrounding region.”

Bell MTS also pointed to a five-year, $1-billion plan to improve service “across Manitoba,” including improved coverage along Highway 75 from Winnipeg to Emerson. About 90 per cent of the company’s wireless network has been upgraded to an LTE-Advanced system, it said.

“Advanced communications networks are expensive to build and operate, and the business case for expanded wireless coverage in areas of low population density is especially challenging with private investment alone,” a representative from the company said.

Rogers Communications also replied to Friesen’s and Holman’s tweets, asking them to reach out to the company, but did not respond to requests for an interview.

Holman, meanwhile, says he’s not holding his breath on improvements.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. “I’m not thinking much is going to change. I don’t know what it will take.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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