Hello? Can you Hear Me?
Nearly a decade after the Nanaimo city council voted on the issue of accessible cell service, the decision continues to affect people’s lives.
In 2013, Telus was trying to gain support to put a new cell phone tower in the parking lot of the Piper’s Pub. The new cell tower would have addressed gaps in the cell service in the Hammond Bay area.
For over a year, the new tower was debated in council and in the community. The biggest concern of those dissenting the proposal was health related.
The public worry surrounded the radiation that the towers emit, in close proximity to multiple schools in the area. The proposed tower fell within the levels of radiation determined “safe” by Health Canada’s regulations, but people were still skeptical.
Cell towers do emit radiation, but no more than household appliances such as microwaves or refrigerators. Furthermore, radiation is concentrated at the top of the tower, off of the antenna. The likelihood that a person is exposed to unsafe radiation levels is low even if the person is standing within reach of the base of the tower—let alone in schools, daycares, or households hundreds of metres away.
Despite this, Telus’s intentions of safely providing adequate wireless connection for Hammond Bay residents along with any of those passing through the area was outvoted by the Nanaimo City Council 8-1 in 2014.
Since then, there has been little significant discussion on the topic; people are still struggling to order pizzas, call their friends, or access two-factor authentication.
To gain one person’s insight on this inconvenient reality that Hammond Bay residents face, I interviewed Jack Corfield, a VIU student and the Podcast Editor here at The Nav.
Jack lives in Hammond Bay where their text messages “rarely send immediately, and [they] often have other’s messages to [them] arrive hours later.” While this is just frankly annoying, there are other logistical issues with having no service at home.
Jack explained to me that without cell service, messages that come in from two-factor authentication services—like online banking, the Canada Revenue Agency, and other government services—do not come through immediately.
This poses a significant issue, as many of these sites time-out quickly due to the sensitive nature of the content. As an alternative, calling these organizations directly is extremely time consuming and, of course, the lack of cell service also affects phone calls.
Since moving to Hammond Bay, Jack has had to text their friends and family through WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram. While this solves the apparent messaging issue, it places all of their personal communication data in the hands of Meta, who is “not [their] favourite corporate overlord.”
Jack also explained, though, that the disconnect from the online world can be comforting to them; limited access is slightly freeing—though inconvenient—in this rampant online world.
However, the issue with there being a lack of cell service extends beyond mundane daily activities. On the much more serious end of the spectrum, residents have struggled to call emergency services.
When emergency services are trying to reach someone in the area, they too lose connectivity and cannot transmit aside from radio use. Furthermore, people in the Hammond Bay area are oftentimes not able to call emergency services by cell phone. This is when the situation’s severity becomes truly apparent.
A few months ago, several Hammond Bay residents struggled to reach 911 during a medical emergency that proved fatal for one older gentleman. Bystanders eventually got through, but when the ambulance arrived, the man had already passed.
Those concerned about the negligible long-term health risks of cell tower radiation must weigh this against the significant and immediate dangers posed by a lack of cell service. This issue needs to be addressed before more incidents like this occur.
However, the cell tower approval process is slightly convoluted. Cellular service providers must gain federal approval before they can even submit their proposals to the local government. Next, the public consultation process begins—the city council conducts a vote, just as they did in 2014.
While public consensus when deciding the placement of a new cell tower is important, people must consider these various circumstances when making their decisions. It is 2023, and we are required to do more and more on our devices (rather than in person) every year; is it fair that there are significant barriers to being able to do so for many people?
The cellular grey area around Hammond Bay must be addressed soon, as the lack of cell service will continue to inconvenience residents—and sometimes even endanger them.
Sam is a fourth-year Criminology student minoring in Indigenous Studies. She is also working towards a certificate in Legal Studies and plans to pursue a law degree upon graduation. She loves learning and living the ‘student life’ and is looking forward to writing for The Navigator this year.