Two N.W.T. MLAs renewed calls Thursday to develop cell service along Highway 3 between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀, but the territory's finance minister said the project is not a priority.
Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland called the lack of service a safety concern and said the stretch of highway is where most of the N.W.T.'s traffic fatalities occur.
"One of the lucky things with the road to Behchokǫ̀ is that it's a well-traveled road, but when it's –50 C, an hour makes a big deal," she said. "So being able to have access to your cell phone to call for help when you need it is really important."
Cleveland questioned Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek on the possible expansion of cell service during a review of capital estimates in the legislature's committee of the whole.
She told CBC News that members have been talking about cell towers along Highway 3 for the duration of the 19th assembly "and we still have not seen an investment."
Jane Weyallon Armstrong, MLA for Monfwi, raised the same question earlier in Thursday's sitting. "We cannot express it enough or emphasize it enough, that cell phone service is greatly needed on Highway 3," she said, asking the minister to commit to providing that service.
Wawzonek told both members that based on the costs, the project was deemed "not a priority."
Cost too high, even with funding from elsewhere
In February 2021, the territory issued a request for expressions of interest to determine what the costs for the project would be. Wawzonek said Northwestel was the only respondent.
She told the assembly that the company sought funding opportunities from the federal government under the universal broadband fund — a program to support high-speed internet across Canada, especially in rural or remote communities.
Even with that funding, Wawzonek said Northwestel would still need a commitment of at least $500,000 a year from the territory.
She called the cost "prohibitive" but said satellite cell phone services could be an avenue for the territory to improve cell phone coverage in the future as technology advances and those services become available.
Wawzonek pointed to national data indicating that across the country, there are over 1,200 kilometres of highways and 115,000 kilometres of roads without cell coverage. That data is from 2018, and Wawzonek said there could have been improvements since then. She added those figures are to say "it's not a problem that the Government of the Northwest Territories can solve alone."
She said since improving cell service was not deemed a priority by this assembly, it did not get priority funding under the capital plan.
"I guess my response to that is, what is the cost of safety?" Cleveland asked. "When you lose multiple residents along that highway every year, what is the value of them being able to potentially call for help?"
According to a 2020 traffic collision report from the Department of Infrastructure (the most recent report available), four people died along Highway 3 in 2020, the only traffic fatalities in the territory that year.
The majority of the territory's traffic fatalities in 2019 also happened along Highway 3, according to the 2019 version of that report.
In 2018, a Highway 3 death was one of two traffic fatalities; the other occurred along Highway 5.
The issue has triggered calls in the past from chiefs in Behchokǫ̀ and Whatı̀ for the territorial government to address the issue.
In 2020, Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels and Whatı̀ Chief Alfonz Nitsiza sent two separate letters, which were tabled in the Legislative Assembly, asking the government to address "the long overdue matter of cellphone connectivity between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀."
Daniels said at the time that the lack of cell service "is not just embarrassing, but it handicaps safety and economic development."
Later that year, Paulie Chinna — who was the municipal affairs minister at the time — said in a written response to a question raised in the Legislature that the issue affects highways across the territory. At the time, she estimated it would cost in excess of $110 million for service providers to solve the issue.