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The GNWT is not ready to make any commitment on when cellphone service might be available on Highway 5 between Hay River and Fort Smith.

The GNWT cannot make any commitment on when cellular service might be offered on Highway 5 between Hay River and Fort Smith. NNSL file photo

During a Feb. 8 discussion in the legislative assembly about cellular service on the NWT highway system, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos directly asked Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek if she could commit to installing cellular service along Highway 5 within the life of the 19th assembly.

“Would that it would be so easy,” replied Wawzonek, also the minister of industry, tourism and investment. “I cannot make that commitment at this point. What I am going to commit to, again, is that we are going to get the information with respect to the stretch of highway between Behchoko and Yellowknife and to see what that costing might be, what those options might be. Once we have that in hand, we can start to look at other stretches of highway in the Northwest Territories.”

The minister said the safety aspect of cellular service on highways is not lost on her.

“And it’s not lost on me the costs or the fact that we are behind coverage compared to the rest of Canada,” she said. “There is a lot of attention on this issue right now in terms of cellular coverage, not only here but elsewhere with the federal government, so it certainly is my hope that there may be some options for us.”

Noting she supports installing cellular infrastructure on Highway 3 between Yellowknife and Behchoko, Martselos pointed out there is no cellphone service on the 273 kilometres of Highway 5.

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“In the event of an emergency, unless travellers have a satellite phone, they are obliged to depend on other bypassers along the highway to get any rescue assistance,” she said, adding that is not acceptable.

“In this day and age, I think we have reached a point where this is considered critical infrastructure, and building it ought to be a no-brainer,” she said. “It’s a busy highway, and it is the only highway in and out of Fort Smith. It is also the NWT’s entryway into Wood Buffalo National Park, which is the second-largest park in the world, making it a great tourist destination.”

Wawzonek said there is the “simple reality” that there is no private market to build such infrastructure on NWT highways.

“There is no way of earning any sort of revenue or profit on this,” she said. “For this to go forward, there would have to be significant government support of the project, which takes certainly some consideration and planning.”

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