Nunavut opted out of national emergency alert test, citing not enough cellphones in territory

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Cell service is so poor this rural firefighter worries people can't call for help

Cell service is so poor this rural firefighter worries people can't call for help

Unlike the rest of Canada, cell phones are not yet ubiquitous in Nunavut. In fact, about half of the territory's communities are not yet connected by cell service providers.

So when considering whether or not to participate in last week's nationwide emergency alert system, Nunavut took a pass — and it was the only jurisdiction that did.  

"I'm almost glad we weren't [taking part] because there were a lot of problems," said Ed Zebedee, the special advisor on emergency management with the government of Nunavut.

The alert system was supposed to deliver a test emergency alert to all devices connected on LTE service. The alert did not send at all in Quebec and not everyone who was supposed to receive one in Ontario did.

Both cell service providers in Nunavut, SSi Micro and Bell, have pledged to roll out phone service in all of Nunavut's 25 communities by 2019.

SSi has been gradually connecting the smaller communities throughout 2018 and added Taloyoak to its list of served communities on Monday, bringing the number of its connected communities to nine.

Zebedee said it was unclear how many phones are actually in use in the territory. Nine days before the rest of Canada began testing the alerts, Bell disconnected all the old CDMA phones that were still operating in some Nunavut communities.

The CDMA phones, mainly older flip phones which do not use SIM card technology, have been slowly phased out across the country since 2017.

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Character restrictions pose problems

Another challenge facing Nunavut is the need to put out alerts in all four of the territory's official languages, English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

"The total system is limited to 600 characters so trying to get all four languages in 600 characters is going to be a challenge," Zebedee said.

He said while other jurisdictions can relay more information, all Nunavut will probably be able to do within the character limit is say there's an emergency in this community, and prompt the user to read a page with more information.  

Nunavut is gearing up to participate in the next alert test, which Zebedee said he doesn't expect until next year.

He said missing the first test also means the territory doesn't have to spend lots of hours figuring out what went wrong, as much of the rest of Canada is currently doing.