What Canada can learn from how the U.S. handles cell outages in hurricanes

After post-tropical storm Fiona hit Atlantic Canada, thousands experienced unreliable cell service. (CBC - image credit)
After post-tropical storm Fiona hit Atlantic Canada, thousands experienced unreliable cell service. (CBC - image credit)

Nearly a week after post-tropical storm Fiona made landfall in Nova Scotia, many are still dealing with spotty cell and internet service. Some telecommunications experts are looking to the United States for ways Canada could improve the integrity of its networks.

Harold Feld is a senior vice-president at Public Knowledge, a tech policy non-profit based in Washington, D.C.. With each successive large storm in the United States, he said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has pushed telecom companies to review failures and improve infrastructure.

"After (Hurricane) Katrina, for example, there were major outages sometimes in some places lasting for a month or more," said Feld.

"In each case, the FCC has done a post-mortem and has created regulations that ensure that the next time a similar storm strikes, we don't have the same things go wrong."

CBC News
CBC News

For example, Feld said many American telecom companies have portable cellular towers that they can deploy when regular towers are knocked out.

Cell on Light Truck (COLTs) can be driven into areas and connect to existing wireless networks to boost service. If service is completely down, SAT COLTs connect with the network via satellite. There are even flying systems attached to drones called Cell on Wings, or Flying COWs.

In response to Hurricane Ian making landfall in Florida on Wednesday, Governor Ron DeSantis said over 100 portable cell towers will be deployed once it's safe to enter the affected area.

Feld said these technologies were created in response to assessments made by the FCC and pressure the commission has put on the sector.

"The industry looks on this, appropriately, as a valuable strength and service to the public interest," said Feld.

"So there's a feedback loop that encourages industry to invest in these technologies and safeguards, but they don't happen unless the FCC pushes them."

It's up to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to keep telecom companies in check after destructive storms, said Feld.

"If you still have outages that are a week or longer then the CRTC really needs to to find out why."

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CBC News

Many in the Maritimes region were without cellular service or data connection for days during and after the storm.

Cendrine Essaye in New Glasgow, N.S., has been experiencing spotty service since the storm hit. She's still only able to make calls and send texts from outside her house on her front porch.

"We need to be able to stay connected to family and friends," Essaye said.

"Saturday instead of making calls we were trying to go door to door and make sure everybody was OK, but you're in a storm still."

Outage reports

The FCC has been posting regular status reports for areas impacted by Hurricane Fiona, like Puerto Rico.

These reports are based on network outage data submitted by communications providers to the FCC, and follow the voluntary Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework the major telecom companies agreed to in 2016.

According to the framework, when emergencies or disasters hit, the wireless carriers send data to the FCC so it can be shared publicly on their website. This data includes the total number of cell sites out of service on a county-by-county basis, and is regularly updated.

In comparison, the CRTC does not report the same type of information. In a speech to a House of Commons committee in July, CRTC chairman and CEO Ian Scott said the resiliency of Canada's communications network is a "top priority."

Government meets with CEOs

Federal ministers and Nova Scotia MPs met with telecom CEOs Wednesday night to discuss service outages in Atlantic Canada during the storm.

In an interview Thursday, Halifax MP Andy Fillmore, who was in the meeting, said strengthening telecommunications service is a high priority and legislative intervention is on the table.

"The conversation was really around looking to the future," said Fillmore. "How can we improve the resiliency of this infrastructure? How can we address some of the fragilities that were exposed? How can we harden that infrastructure?"

CBC reached out to the companies that met with the federal government Wednesday evening.

Eastlink told CBC it "welcomed the opportunity to share the reality of what's happening" in Atlantic Canada, including how the company prepared and collaborated with other providers to get services back online.

Rogers said it saw the meeting as an "opportunity" to tell the government how telecommunications companies worked together during the storm.

CBC News
CBC News

Daniel Tsai, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto who teaches law, business, and technology, said Canada could be doing more to prevent severe, prolonged cell outages. For example, the government could mandate telcos to invest in more resilient, self-powered cell tower infrastructure.

"The best solution is prevention and to ensure we have the means in place and a plan in place to address these emergencies, as opposed to waiting after the fact and cleaning up the mess," Tsai said.

While Canada hasn't experienced the frequency and severity of storms that the United States has, Tsai said climate change means storms like Hurricane Fiona will be more frequent.

"Americans have responded more forcefully because they've had to deal with more calamity, but they've also responded more proactively in terms of their entrepreneurial approach to coming up with new technologies that could be commercialized," said Tsai.

If Canada wants change and improvement to its telecommunications storm response, Tsai said it's ultimately up to the government to enforce change.

"Instead of just talk, we need to translate that into action and have the federal government take a leadership role, tell specifically what the telcos need to do."