Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavik November 06, 2012 - 6:03 am

Lousy telephone service puts Nunavik at risk, doctor says

“It’s as if the telecommunications network in the region was beginning to collapse”

Making a long-distance telephone call from Puvirnituq's Inuulitsivik health centre can be challenging due to ongoing problems with telephone service. (FILE PHOTO)
Making a long-distance telephone call from Puvirnituq's Inuulitsivik health centre can be challenging due to ongoing problems with telephone service. (FILE PHOTO)

The poor state of telephone service in Nunavik is putting people at risk, says a physician who works in Nunavik.

Over the past few weeks, Nunavik has been plagued with an unreliable — and often non-existent — long-distance telephone service, said Dr. François Prévost, a coroner who is head of general medicine at Puvirnituq’s Inuulitsivik health centre and an associate professor at McGill University and the Université du Québec’s Abitibi-Temiscamingue campus.

“It’s as if the telecommunications network in the region was beginning to collapse,” said Prévost, in a recent statement he sent to media to call attention to the region’s poor telecommunications system. Prévost has worked in Nunavik since 1996.

About three of every four long distance calls made from local health centres don’t go through, he said.

In some communities, the problems are intermittent, but in others it is almost continual, he said.

“The irony is that in the majority of villages it is impossible to reach the 611 or 310-Bell number to report the problem,” the way Bell customers normally do in southern Quebec, Prévost said.

Bell Aliant, the member of the Bell group of companies which services Nunavik, says it’s aware of the problems — although Paul Lacoursière from Bell Aliant’s corporative communications department said the company hadn’t received complaints about the poor service until three weeks ago.

Its technicians spent this past weekend testing the system to see what’s causing the problems, he said.

“Sometimes it’s a combination of several pieces of equipment,” Lacoursière said.

Everything looked good after the tests, but this morning “there was a problem,” he acknowledged.

Now, the company is running more tests to see if the problems are related to the Telesat satellite which provides all Nunavik’s telecommunications: “that’s what we want to see.”

Some suggest the deterioration in Nunavik’s telephone service is due to a lack of investment in new infrastructure by Bell Aliant.

They say that’s because the company worries the limited market may open to competitors soon, although, for the moment, Bell still enjoys a monopoly over land line telephone service in the region.

The loss of reliable telephone service means an “unimaginable” loss of work, Prévost said.

Faxes can’t get through, and the communications between Nunavik villages or points in the South become “extremely painful,” he said.

“We call, we wait, nothing happens. It’s like we’re suspended in outer space. Or sometimes a loud noise blasts our eardrum. At other times, it’s the “South” calling: the line rings. Hello? Hello? No one. But the line rings and rings again later. Without call display, there’s no way to know who is trying to call,” Prévost said.

After a dozen tries sometimes it’s possible to get a line, he said.

And if you manage to get through to an operator, you can explain the situation, but then Bell wants to charge extra for the assistance, he said.

Even when you do get a line, the quality of communication is poor, with echoes or cut-offs. Sometimes it’s so bad, callers on either end can’t understand each other.

That makes it impossible to transfer complicated medical information, Prévost said.

“Not to mention that sometimes the connection is split, that is to say, we are able to clearly hear another conversation at the same time. Say goodbye to confidentiality,” Prévost said.

Bell has sent technicians to some communities to fix the problems, but a few days or weeks later, the problems start all over again, he said.

As a result, Nunavik residents still use fax machines to communicate, but scans take a long time to transmit, he said.

Sometimes people use Skype, but that’s hard too, due to limited internet bandwidth.

In emergencies, you can use a satellite phone, he said.

Satellite phones were distributed to each community following the recommendation of the coroner’s report on the avalanche that struck Kangiqsualujjuaq in 1999.

That report recommended the creation of long-distance lines dedicated to emergency services for Nunavik.

Communities have a certain number of long-distance lines. For example, in Inukjuak there are 16 long-distance lines for a population of about 2,000.

But if you’re the 17th person wanting to make a long distance call, you can’t get through.

Emergency organizations now sometimes use local radio to ask people to hang up so a long distance line is freed up, Prévost said.

“The coroner’s recommendation, which was to create dedicated lines, a highly-relevant recommendation in my opinion, has not been carried out since 1999. This recommendation makes sense today, because with the deterioration of the network, we can no longer rely simply on the phone as emergency tool,” he said.

Emergency and health services in Nunavik suffer enormously every day, Prévost said.

“Thanks to the resourcefulness of staff in the North, apart from the frustrating drawbacks, nothing serious has happened so far, “ he said.

But many are concerned that if serious event occurs and the internet service fails at the same time as the phone system, “we would really be cut off from the world.”

However, Bell can’t supply a dedicated line, said Lacoursière. It’s not possible because there are no cables providing separate service lines — just a single satellite.

Meanwhile, a petition asking for improved service is circulating, while others say they won’t pay for a service that doesn’t work.

Prévost said a complaint is being filed with the CRTC.

But a new more reliable service may be in the works.

Arctic Fibre Inc., the firm that’s planning to install an undersea fibre optic cable to connect London, New York and Tokyo through the waters of the Canadian Arctic, announced Oct. 30 that they’ve amended their plan to include a backbone connection that would extend along the eastern side of Hudson Bay from Cape Dorset to Kuujjuaraapik and Chisasibi.

The company also proposes a series of spur links that could benefit Nunavik, Nunavut and the James Bay Cree.

Those include spur lines to Ivujivik, Akulivik, Puvirnituq, Inukjuak, Umiuaq and Kuujjuaraapik-Whapmagoostui.

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