N.S. premier blasts telecom companies in wake of Fiona, calls on Ottawa to step in with regulation

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says telecommunications companies have not done enough to keep the public informed about service restoration in the wake of Fiona. (CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston says telecommunications companies have not done enough to keep the public informed about service restoration in the wake of Fiona. (CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston is calling for more transparency and co-operation from major telecommunications companies, blasting them for not being more involved with provincial co-ordination efforts in the wake of a major storm that knocked out service for hundreds of thousands of people across Atlantic Canada.

But a number of telecommunications companies say they participated in efforts as much as possible while trying to assess and repair damage caused by post-tropical storm Fiona.

In a news release Wednesday, Houston's office said he wrote to Francois-Philippe Champagne, the federal minister responsible for telecommunications, to ask Ottawa to take action to ensure companies provide the public with information about service outages in the storm's aftermath.

"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," Houston said in the news release.

"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."

Unlike Nova Scotia Power, which operates a detailed outage map that provides anticipated restoration times, telecommunications companies have no such requirement. Consumer advocates have warned that a lack of accountability would continue unless the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) steps in with greater regulation of the industry for things such as performance standards.

In his news release, Houston said officials with the province's Emergency Management Office requested that key critical infrastructure partners, including telecom companies, send a representative to the provincial co-ordination centre.

"Not one telecommunications company was initially willing to send a representative. Only after complaints to senior leadership did Bell agree to send a representative in person, who attended the centre for two days before announcing they would work virtually. Eastlink, Rogers and Telus declined to attend the [centre] in person during the initial response."

WATCH | Crews continue to work Wednesday to restore power in Halifax

Telcos respond

Lee Bragg, executive vice-chair of Eastlink, said he understands the premier's frustration, but the company's focus in the aftermath of a storm is on understanding the magnitude of the damage to the network, and that takes "all of our efforts to do that."

"It's not valuable to put somebody in the EMO who doesn't know anything," he told reporters during a briefing Wednesday.

Bragg said the company was in "constant contact" with all parties during the process, including Champagne. Once the storm's impact was determined, the company could "intelligently participate, and we did send someone," said Bragg.

Like Bragg, Geoff Moore with Bell said co-ordination among cellular providers and other partners, including Nova Scotia Power, was "top notch." He said everyone has learned from past storms about the need for better co-ordination.

"It's never been this tight," Moore told reporters during the briefing.

Still, Moore said there could be opportunities for better communication with customers, government officials and the CRTC. He and Bragg said their respective companies are looking at ways to provide better information to customers about restoration estimates and outage locations.

Most service close to being restored

Bragg said Eastlink, like all providers, is motivated to restore service as quickly as possible, but that can be challenged by downed power lines and impassable roads.

"We don't get paid when we don't provide service. We want to get the service back up and running as fast as we can."

A spokesperson for Bell said 911 and the company's emergency responder network remained fully functional during and after the storm.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Rogers said the company had "robust measures and processes" in place to respond to storm-related outages as needed.

"This included working in close collaboration with provincial and federal partners and with other telecommunication providers to support one another," Nilani Logeswaran said in an email.

"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 per cent of services restored across the region."

Logeswaran said technicians were brought in from Ontario and Quebec prior to Fiona's arrival to support local restoration efforts. She said company officials have "remained in constant contact with all provincial emergency management teams in the Atlantic region, including participating on all the EMO calls."

A representative for Telus said in a statement the company was "a fully engaged participant prior and throughout" the storm and that it's been working around the clock with partners to restore service.

"Telus has attended 15 consecutive Nova Scotia EMO calls … for an average of three calls each day from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27," Jacinthe Beaulieu said in an email.

"We will continue to actively participate in those calls."

LIke the other providers, Beaulieu said remaining network outages are related to power outages.

Houston said efforts by telecom companies to communicate with their customers are in stark contrast to Nova Scotia Power, the Canadian Red Cross, Halifax Regional Municipality and Cape Breton Regional Municipality, all of which have "actively sought opportunities to communicate regularly with Nova Scotians leading up to, during the storm and after the storm."

"Other service providers have come together in an effort to make sure Nova Scotians have the information they need, yet the telecommunications companies are consistently missing from the table," said Houston.

In an interview with CBC News, Houston said he wants the federal government to hold the companies accountable and ensure the best possible performance standards are met. Houston said he understands service will go down in a storm, but he said it's clear after meeting people in the hardest-hit parts of the province that things must improve.

"We can look at what happens in other jurisdictions and make sure that there's reliable service for Nova Scotians, and I think we were let down in that case."

Meeting scheduled with minister and telcos

Speaking with reporters in Newfoundland on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a meeting would be happening Wednesday night with Champagne, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and CEOs with the major telecommunications companies.

"People rely on telecommunications, particularly in moments of disaster," said Trudeau.

As of Wednesday, more than 100,000 people in Nova Scotia were still without power. Spokespeople for the telecom companies have told CBC News that although they're working to restore cellular and internet service to their customers, not everyone will be able to be reconnected until the power is restored.

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