Upgrades to cellular service along Highway 16 continue, with two more stretches of service going live earlier this month and another slated to be complete by the end of the year.
The 40 kilometres of upgrades, including a section between Terrace and Kitwanga, are part of a 10-year agreement the province of British Columbia signed with Telus in 2011. In exchange for the lucrative government contract, the telecommunications company has committed to implementing cellular service along rural highways in the province.
“They have agreed to provide about 1,700 kilometres of cellular service that is otherwise marginal for them, but as part of our deal we get to push them to provide it,” said Andrew Wilkinson provincial minister for technology, innovation and citizens' service. “We turn to them and say, look, we are your single biggest customer and as part of that you owe us some special arrangements and one of those is to provide sections of coverage along highways that you otherwise wouldn't.”
It's not easy to place towers in this area of the province, he said, noting the large capital investment required in order to access remote, rugged terrain.
“You can imagine they don't get enough revenue off these sections of highway to justify the investment,” said Wilkinson.
Improved cell service along the highway was one of several recommendations that came out of commissioner Wally Oppal's December 2012 public inquiry report on missing and murdered women, which builds on recommendations from the 2006 Highway of Tears symposium.
“It's a whole suite of recommendations that came out of the Oppal report and this is one corner of it,” Wilkinson said, noting its one area where his ministry has leverage.
“More cellular coverage obviously leads to greater safety, because large percentage of our population now has cell phones so if they're in situations, whether its a broken down vehicle or find themselves in need of some assistance, having cell coverage is the next big step to being able to look out for their personal safety.”
The project is being done in increments, with construction on the next sections set to begin in 2015 for a 2016 projected completion date. Telus has an agreement with Bell to allow them to use their towers, meaning cellular customers with other providers, namely Rogers, will not have full connectivity but will have emergency coverage.
Meanwhile, the main recommendation of the Oppal report – that for improved transportation and a shuttle bus along Highway 16 – hasn't seen much movement.
And that's been the subject of criticism from the official opposition, particularly North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice.