November 17, 2018

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For politicians, cell coverage in rural areas is tough call

Opinion

This week, Premier Brian Pallister undertook the politically perilous journey between the hypothetical and the actual.

In the wake of last week's deadly tornado in southwest Manitoba, Pallister is fielding questions about whether the province could, or should, use taxpayer resources to help extend full LTE cellular phone service -- necessary to receive a text message from a government emergency alert network -- to rural communities.

Not long after the category-4 storm ripped through the area near the tiny community of Alonsa, killing one man, it became clear many residents did not receive texts warning them of the impending storm because cellphone coverage was inadequate.

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This week, Premier Brian Pallister undertook the politically perilous journey between the hypothetical and the actual.

In the wake of last week's deadly tornado in southwest Manitoba, Pallister is fielding questions about whether the province could, or should, use taxpayer resources to help extend full LTE cellular phone service — necessary to receive a text message from a government emergency alert network — to rural communities.

Not long after the category-4 storm ripped through the area near the tiny community of Alonsa, killing one man, it became clear many residents did not receive texts warning them of the impending storm because cellphone coverage was inadequate.

Premier Brian Pallister

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister

After touring the affected municipality earlier this week, Pallister was asked: would his government be willing to underwrite some of the cost of expanding the LTE (long-term evolution) network in rural areas?

"I think that's a premature suggestion," he said.

Premature, perhaps. But not unprecedented.

Two years ago, while Pallister was on hand at a news conference to celebrate the acquisition of MTS by BCE Inc. — and the expansion of LTE coverage on Highway 75 — he was asked a hypothetical question about whether his government would consider providing taxpayer support to further expand cellular coverage in other rural areas.

At that time, with no natural disaster lurking in the background of the question, he said, in theory, it was certainly possible the province would help out.

A cabin was reduced to piles of rubble on Friday after a tornado struck Margaret Bruce Beach near Alonsa.

MELISSA VERGE/BRANDON SUN

A cabin was reduced to piles of rubble on Friday after a tornado struck Margaret Bruce Beach near Alonsa.

It's rare anything good happens to politicians when answers to hypothetical questions are dragged kicking and screaming back into the realm of the actual.

With the issue of cellular coverage very much back in the news, the premier's office was forced to issue a statement that more or less disowned his 2016 comment: given wireless communication is federally regulated, "the federal government is best positioned" to address the issue.

The change in positions did not go unnoticed by opposition critics. Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont issued a news release Wednesday morning alleging Pallister "has abandoned his commitment to... help Bell MTS pay for improved service in rural Manitoba."

Pallister's mild flip-flop is useful in revealing the true, underlying problem: no level of government wants to take responsibility for forcing wireless providers to do something high on cost and low on returns.

Lamont is not alone in harbouring the belief Pallister, in one way or the other, should be taking point on finding a solution.

Association of Manitoba Municipalities president Chris Goertzen said although he agrees Ottawa has a legal obligation to regulate the telecommunications industry, the province is best positioned to deal with this issue.

"We want to see the (provincial) government sit down with the private companies and see what it would take to ensure that all Manitobans have access to this service," he said.

Pallister has only himself to blame for these heightened expectations. Still, there are mitigating factors that should, in fairness, dampen concern he is breaching a solemn promise.

First, this was a reasonable but hypothetical question posed to a first minister who had only been on the job a matter of weeks. It's fair to offer him a mulligan considering the circumstances.

Most importantly, it's important to remember the issue of rural cellphone coverage is really too big and too complex for any one province to solve on its own. We know this because, well, no other province has found a solution.

Across the country, wireless providers concentrate their networks in areas with dense populations. It only makes sense; more people in an area means more customers, which means more revenue to pay for the technology necessary to deliver reliable wireless service.

The result is while providers regularly claim they provide service to more than 90 per cent of Canadians, they are still only reaching 20 per cent or less of Canada's land mass.

If nothing else, Pallister's mild flip-flop is useful in revealing the true, underlying problem: no level of government wants to take responsibility for forcing wireless providers to do something high on cost and low on returns.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the federal telecommunications regulator, supports the concept of equitable access to wireless broadband internet and phone service. A December 2016 policy decision concluded "modern telecommunications services are fundamental to Canada's future economic prosperity, social development and democratic discourse."

Unfortunately, according to Greg Taylor, associate professor of communication, media and film at the University of Calgary, the CRTC has largely failed to take any meaningful action to make those high ideals a reality.

Taylor said Ottawa has made progress in offering $500 million to help private broadband internet providers extend service to rural and remote locations. The current federal Liberal government could take a similar approach with cell coverage, providing incentives to help providers do the right thing, he added.

However, another possible route to explore is simply setting new demands on providers as a condition of licensing.

"The federal government is currently reviewing the telecommunications act and could use that as an opportunity to build in requirements for things like a mandatory access to emergency notification systems," Taylor said. "If that was the law of the land, carriers would have to obey."

A more concerted and focused federal policy tack would certainly come as a relief to many, including Pallister.

It might also help him remember, as many politicians like to say, it's never a good idea to answer a hypothetical question.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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