Port Alice is a small village on the top corner of Vancouver Island. It has a grocery store, health centre, golf course, and 700-some tightly knit locals on a picturesque inlet shrouded in green mountains. It gets black bear and humpback whale visitors regularly.
The population is steady, perhaps even growing, despite recent difficulties with the local economy when the pulp mill closed down. It’s a 45-minute windy drive from Port McNeill.
What it doesn’t have, is great cell phone reception.
You’re breaking up, I didn’t catch that last part, can you say it again?
*crackle* *static* *silence*
Can you hear me now?
*hiss* *crinkle* —call you on— *static* —landline.
Not an uncommon conversation to have with someone in Port Alice. Some locals don’t even bother trying to use their cell phones at home, driving instead to the grocery store parking lot or walking to the end of their street where cell service is slightly stronger.
“If I want to text someone, or use my cellphone at all, I need to take a walk. If I walk to the end of our street I get one bar. Two bars at most on a good day,” said Kathleen Cheetham, a senior who moved to Port Alice from Malcolm Island with her husband in 2019.
She knows that remote life comes with its inconveniences, and welcomes it for the most part. But cell phones are a safety issue.
“If there’s an emergency, once again you’re walking to the end of the road.” What if the person is disabled or injured?
Cheetham pays $90 for one cell phone with data and another $90 for her landline, a hefty chunk for seniors on a fixed income. It feels necessary to have a cell phone for when they leave Port Alice, but the say it’s a lot to pay for a service that’s so often unusable.
Freelancer to the Gazette, Debra Lynn wrote a colourful letter to Telus, sarcastically describing the dance she adds to her “contortion ritual” in the one corner of the living room where her phone sometimes works.
A post in a local Facebook group was immediately swarmed with comments from locals sharing stories and frustration about the poor service. “It sucks….plain and simple. Dropped calls or no calls, straight to voice mail, only works in some places.” … “I got zero bars unless I was outside holding my phone towards the legion.” … “Ours is very hit and miss as well. Certainly can’t count on it.”
It’s not just Telus customers; Rogers operates in the area too, as well as subsidiaries of both like Fido and Koodo. A handful of commenters claimed no issue, but the majority echoed complaints of unreliability.
In 2018 Telus proposed a new cell tower to boost signals, but as Mayor Kevin Cameron recalls, locals were concerned it was too close to the school and the recreation centre. “We’re not sure what effects of all the beams going through the air,” he said. So the proposal was shelved and spotty cell service remained.
Questions had been raised by some locals about whether a new tower was needed at all, or if a few extra receiver disks would do the job. In answer to that, Telus told the Gazette that yes, a new cell tower would be required, and that the company remained “open to exploring opportunities to … enhance wireless services in this community.”
In the years since, the village has acquired a more remote, uphill piece of land and is in the process of asking Telus to re-evaluate the area for a new cell tower.
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