SaskTel says federal regulations make it difficult to serve cell customers along borders

·6 min read

Cell phone coverage around the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border is an issue, with residnts complaining of inconsistent service on both sides leading to dropped calls. Following is an interview by the World-Spectator with Michelle Englot, SaskTel’s Director of Communications, regarding the issue:

What is the cause of this problem?

SaskTel does what it can to optimize its coverage around the border areas, but as a regional provider, we’re only permitted to provide wireless service within the province of Saskatchewan. So, as a result we have to take steps to ensure our coverage doesn’t bleed into Manitoba or the States as much as possible. Essentially we don’t own any spectrum in those areas, so that does attribute to the problem. And that combined with the poor wireless coverage on the Manitoba side, unfortunately it leads to some coverage gaps along the border.

What is the reason this problem seems to have become worse in recent years? Is it a change in technology?

Well, I don’t really think it’s the technology as much as it is the coverage area. So, essentially we do need to put a tower in, in order to fill in the coverage gaps. So when we’re adding extra capacity on towers, that does not increase the coverage. However, when we’re adding new towers, that does fill in coverage gaps. So, it’s a matter of us filling in those coverage gaps and some of the limitations with wireless service and obviously capacity at each tower does impact the coverage area as well.

So what does SaskTel have for those people along the border who say they simply can’t get service? One reader told us she had three dropped calls trying to contact the poison control centre recently.

In terms of what we’re doing, we’re looking to optimize the handoff between Manitoba and Saskatchewan and reduce the amount of dropped calls. That’s something our technicians are working on, we’re aware of the problem and we’re working to perfect that solution so as technology evolves, hopefully we’ll be able to find a solution where dropped calls aren’t as common in any given situation.

In terms of the safety issue, we do ask customers to be cautious of where they’re travelling and look at the areas that they may not experience coverage issues on because even though SaskTel does cover 99 per cent of the population base in the province, there are geographically areas that we simply will not be able to supply coverage to based on some of the challenges we have in terms of reaching some geographical areas where there’s lots of trees or hills or valleys, etc. I think there’s areas that we won’t be able to cover and we ask customers just to be conscious of where they’re travelling.

Is this a problem on the west side of the province as well?

It is, yes, for sure it is at any border area. And it’s simply due to the fact that we are not allowed to bleed across the border and we can only use our spectrum within the province.

So other than trying to improve the handoffs that carry out of the province, is there anything else SaskTel can do to try and repair the issue?

Well SaskTel is, as I said, continually looking to optimize the performance of our network and we are looking at adding new towers. We have the 74 macro towers that we are adding right now which will increase coverage areas and as technology evolves, we’re certainly trying to stay on top of the different technologies that will allow us to continue to optimize our network and provide good communication services for everyone.

I imagine that, especially because of cell phones, more data is being handled by cell towers across the province? Is that a fair assumption?

Absolutely. Data usage continues to grow exponentially and that is something that we’re defiantly monitoring. Especially, even during Covid-19 times here, we have seen increases in data usage with people doing more work from home and home schooling and things like that. And we will continue to add capacity to our network and monitor it and work on things to optimize it in order to provide as good of cell service as we can.

So how does SaskTel decide where to make the investments?

We do continually look at areas where we have coverage gaps and things we take into consideration when we’re looking at potential expansion sites are things such as the population size of the areas, the economic activity within the area and then our existing network performance within that area. So we do attempt to look at all of those things and take that into consideration in terms of where we need to expand service. And we can tell where our network is being used the most along major highway corridors and things like that. And so those are all factors that we take into consideration when we’re looking to add a new tower.

How much does SaskTel, invest in a typical year in expanding capacity?

Our overall capital expenditure within a year is typically around $300 million. The 74 new macros were an investment of $72.2 million. So we’re looking at, by adding a new large macro tower within the province, that roughly costs us approximately $1 million to add one new tower. And we do continue to invest in our infrastructure and continue to expand our networks.

In areas where there has been growth, does public pressure play a role in SaskTel’s decisions where to invest, or is it simply based on engineering and data?

No, we certainly take that into consideration when our engineering department is reviewing the areas, and if we’re getting public feedback that there are coverage gaps in places where there is significant traffic, we take that into consideration for sure.

There’s a new cell tower that was put up Fairlight last fall. When will it be activated?

It is not active yet, we anticipate that that tower will be in service by early summer this year.

What’s the process for bringing something like that online?

There’s a fairly significant process for bringing a new tower online, we do need to first of all look at finding an optimal site based on our coverage gaps, then from there we have to look at either acquiring land or leasing land to put the tower on. Then from there we have to go through a full public consultation process where we notify anybody within the area in order to put the tower up and ensure that there aren’t any concerns with the tower location, and sometimes that process takes us longer if there is some opposition to tower locations or things like that.

But essentially we find that, for the most part, people do want the improved coverage and they understand that requires a tower. So for the most part we do have some opposition in some areas but that goes fairly well.

From there, we then we begin our construction process. Once we select a location or determine we need to add a tower, it takes from 18 to 24 months for the entire process.

Spencer Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The World-Spectator