Lousy rural phone service inspires coping strategies

WHITEHEAD — It has been more than two months since Sandra Reeves-Winter first aired her grievances about the dismal phone service to her rural home on the Eastern Shore.

Now – having raised awareness of the problem with municipal, provincial and federal representatives, as well as corporate officials at Bell Aliant – the Whitehead resident, who lives in a log home, reported that her landline has improved somewhat.

“When the weather is bad, like it has been over the last few days, it’s terrible,” she said. “You can’t really depend on it at all, but it is better than it was.”

She can’t claim the same about her cell service, however, which she said remains notoriously unreliable. “On a scale of one to 10, I’m going to give it a three.”

These days, she said, acceptance almost goes with the territory, as do coping strategies. When both services are unavailable, she uses her Internet connection to make and receive calls. “The tower is on our property,” she laughed. “At least, we know we’re in good company.”

Indeed, her story – first reported by The Journal – and others from the province’s rural enclaves made national news in September. The following month, the provincial government announced its Cellular for Nova Scotia Program – a $47.3-million provincial investment to expand telecommunications infrastructure and communications networks, particularly in frequently “dead zones” like Whitehead.

At the time, Bell Aliant spokesperson Katie Hatfield told The Journal that the troubles with Reeves-Winter’s landline were related to “equipment damage, which has since been repaired.” Longer term, “Thanks to Bell’s partnership with Build Nova Scotia to expand its fibre network to 80,000 hard-to-reach homes and businesses across the province, [the Whitehead] area will be upgraded with fibre technology. We are targeting to have the work completed [there] before the end of the year.”

Still, Reeves-Winter insisted, what ails rural phone systems – landlines and cell networks, alike – feels frustratingly systemic and all too familiar. And, while the announced initiatives may seem encouraging for the future, “The ongoing fix... has been ongoing for years... and never really seems to resolve anything... Really, the whole system needs restructuring.”

Meanwhile, the workarounds she deploys to maintain some semblance of full-time connection to the world are as resourceful as they are annoying.

“I’ve had to use the landline more often lately, because cell service is so bad. And then, when we have heavy rains, the landline gets all staticky, I go back to the cell phone.”

Even using her Internet connection isn’t a slam dunk.

“The Internet here is also not great. My son is a tech guy and very often he can’t work.”

Ultimately, she said, “You establish yourself... you build a house... you kind of put down roots... We just have to grin and bear it and accept it for what it is. Besides, these days, there’s no way we could afford to move and buy another house anyway.”

Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal