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N.S. premier slams 'poor participation and support' from telecom companies during Fiona

Five days after Fiona knocked power out for more than 500,000 customers in Nova Scotia, over 100,000 are still without power. Many more remain without internet and cell phone service.

Now, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston is calling for more transparency and accountability from telecommunications companies when it comes to collaborating with the province's Emergency Management Office (EMO).

Writing to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne, Houston called on the federal government to take action to ensure telecommunications companies provide regular up-to-date information about service outages in the aftermath of Fiona. More than four days after the storm, many Nova Scotians remain without access to cell phone service, meaning they're not able to call 911 in case of an emergency.

"Nova Scotians have questions about when their service will be restored, how widespread the outages are and what the companies plan to do to ensure this never happens again," said Houston in a Wednesday morning press release. "It is unacceptable that there are Nova Scotians who can't call 911 or connect with loved ones during this difficult time. There is no question we need our telecommunications companies to step up and be more transparent."

In his letter to Champagne, Houston wrote that Fiona was "possibly the largest and most devastating storm" to ever hit Nova Scotia, expressing his "disappointment with the poor participation and support" from telecom companies before, during and after the storm.

NSEMO has also contacted critical infrastructure partners, including telecom companies, to request that they send a representative to the Provincial Coordination Centre (PCC). According to the provincial government, "not one telecommunications company was initially willing to send a representative."

"Only after complaints to senior leadership did Bell agree to send a representative in person, who attended the centre for two days before announcing they would work virtually," the release reads. "Eastlink, Rogers and Telus declined to attend the PCC in person during the initial response."

The release added that other key partners, like Nova Scotia Power and the Canadian Red Cross, have "actively sought opportunities to communicate regularly with Nova Scotians leading up to, during the storm and after the storm."

"Other service providers have come together in an effort to make sure Nova Scotians have the information they need, yet the telecommunications companies are consistently missing from the table," said Houston. "We are calling on the federal government, as the regulator, to ensure that telecommunications are accountable for their performance in emergencies and transparent with customers."

Bell is responsible for 911 infrastructure in Atlantic Canada, as well as all trunked mobile radio infrastructure which is used by all first responders in the Maritimes.

In a statement to CTV Atlantic, Bell Aliant communications manager Katie Hatfield rebutted Houston’s claim the telecom service hasn’t taken part in NSEMO storm recovery efforts.

“We understand Premier Houston is coping with the worst natural disaster to hit the province and may not be getting the most up to date information, but Bell has participated in the provincial command centre in person since before the storm hit,” the statement reads.

Hatfield says their representative took part virtually on Sunday “as they dealt with making their own property safe” but remained connected with the provincial command centre.

And further to that, the telecoms service has taken part “in every EMO media availability we’ve been asked to take part in.” Hatfield also says both 911 and their emergency responder network “remained fully functional throughout the storm and aftermath.”

“We undertook extensive preparations for this storm, including pre-deploying additional teams and generators from out of province,” the statement continues. “Even at peak, the vast majority of both our wireless and wireline networks were powered up and operational and at this point are close to being back to 100 per cent. From the moment it was safe to do so, our crews were out restoring service in those areas hardest hit by what was the worst storm ever to hit the country, working closely with both our competitors and utilities.”

Now, the telecom company is turning its attention to “addressing specific areas of storm damage to poles and cables,” provided power has been restored to the area and it’s safe to do so.

In a press conference held Wednesday, Eastlink had a similar response to Premier Houston's claim and highlighted the importance of understanding the magnitude of the events, prior to having answers for customers.

"I do understand the premier's perspective, everybody wants everything to work all the time, but the challenges, sometimes that’s just not possible," said Lee Bragg, chief executive officer of Eastlink.

Bragg added, as of Wednesday, 99 per cent of customers have connectivity, while during the worst of the storm’s impact, that number dipped to 85 per cent. Most of its issues were around the New Glasgow and Cape Breton region, according to Bragg.

"We all work hard to get service on as fast as possible. We have as much communication as we can with our customers about restoration times, but it is a challenge and sometimes it is difficult for us to predict exactly when we can restore a certain area because there are other mitigating factors," he said.

In a statement to CTV News, a Telus spokesperson said although the majority of their networks have been restored, crews continue to work with infrastructure to have all services up and running as soon as possible.

"Our team has been working around the clock and is actively collaborating with our network partners, provincial authorities and Nova Scotia and other provincial Emergency Management Organizations (EMO) to restore wireless service as soon as possible and to provide critical, timely updates on coordination calls," said the spokesperson in an email.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has also weighed in on behalf of the federal government saying, “The Canadian Armed Forces are on the ground in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and on Prince Edward Island,” adding, “when it comes to cell service, that is absolutely a priority for Canadians in good times and during disasters, and that’s why we are working hard with the cell phone companies to give Canadians the service they need.”

*Bell is the parent company of CTV Top Stories

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