There’s no need to read between the lines to see it is unlikely that the GNWT will be installing cellphone service any time soon on Highway 5 between Hay River and Fort Smith.

When the issue of cellular service on NWT highways was raised in the legislative assembly on Feb. 8, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek, who is also the minister of industry, tourism and investment, could make no commitment.

Wawzonek would only commit to looking into the cost of cellular service on the highway between Behchoko and Yellowknife, and then other stretches of highway in the NWT.

However, most importantly she 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, adding that means a project would require significant government support.

While the GNWT is looking into the cost, it can be safely assumed that such infrastructure would not be cheap.

And while everyone, including Wawzonek, knows that cellphone service would increase safety on highways, that does not mean improved safety would trump the cost. If that were the case, cellphone service on the highways would have been installed years ago.

Instead, travellers have gotten used to being out of range, which means being unable to contact emergency services if they are in an accident or happen to come upon an accident. It also means no communications if your vehicle breaks down or goes off the highway, an especially unfortunate incident in winter.

If they need it, motorists have to depend on assistance from other travellers, who can relay messages when they get in cellphone range or use a satellite phone, if they have one, to call for help.

And it is those satellite phones — in the absence of cellphone service on highways — that offer the best solution to this problem.

The Hub has direct knowledge of the value of satellite phones. That’s because Northern News Services Ltd. provides satellite phones to employees who travel on NWT highways.

In just one example of how that can help, an NNSL satellite phone was used to help two people in a delivery truck which had unfortunately driven into deep snow and was quite stuck about eight metres (25 feet) off Highway 5.

Since it is unlikely that cellular service will be available anytime soon on NWT highways, the question should become how can more satellite phones get into the hands of motorists?

Perhaps that can be through some kind of satellite phone sharing service created by the GNWT. A person might pick up a satellite phone for a trip and then return it. That would undoubtedly be cheaper than creating new cellular infrastructure.

Perhaps there could be some kind of tax deduction to encourage Northerners to buy satellite phones.

At minimum, maybe there could be a public information campaign about the benefits of buying a satellite phone.

By all means, politicians should keep talking about cellular service on NWT highways and see where that may lead in the coming years.

But more satellite phones can immediately improve safety for motorists.

Paul Bickford

Paul Bickford is the reporter for Hay River Hub.

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