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A motorist stops to survey the damage to a washed-out bridge near Newport Corner, N.S., July 23, 2023.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

More than 21,000 households live in cellular dead zones in Nova Scotia and hundreds of kilometres of primary roads are also unserved, according to a 2022 report that the provincial government has yet to release but was obtained through a freedom of information request.

The report was commissioned on behalf of the province by Crown corporation Build Nova Scotia to identify and address gaps in cellular coverage – an issue that was thrust into the spotlight during this year’s disastrous wildfires and deadly flooding that killed four people, including two children.

Officials reported that some Nova Scotians did not receive emergency alerts in areas with known poor cellular coverage, a public-safety issue that has drawn criticism and promises from politicians to fix the problem. Premier Tim Houston vowed to find a solution after the flooding, but with an intense hurricane season well under way and forecasts of more extreme weather on the horizon, no announcement has been made.

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Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston vowed to find a solution to gaps in cellular coverage in the province after the July flooding, but with an intense hurricane season well under way and forecasts of more extreme weather on the horizon, no announcement has been made.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The report, received more than a year ago, details potential solutions and costs to improve the areas of the province where Nova Scotians don’t have cell service to make emergency calls or receive emergency alerts.

In July, after flash flooding in Nova Scotia prompted by a downpour of more than 250 millimetres of rain in a few hours resulted in four deaths, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters it was “unacceptable” that people in rural Nova Scotia could miss a public-emergency alert because of poor cellphone reception. She promised to speak about the issue to the national telecommunication regulator and federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne.

Late last month, Opposition Leader Zach Churchill called out the Nova Scotia government during a hurricane-preparedness announcement for failing to address the significant cell service gaps in rural Nova Scotia. The Liberals called for the release of the Cell Gap Analysis completed for Build Nova Scotia.

“Each day this report continues to be withheld increases the risks to Nova Scotians who are facing more extreme weather events and require access to urgent communication, no matter where they are in the province,” Mr. Churchill said. “Nova Scotians need more than a social media campaign to be prepared for hurricane season. The Houston government needs to immediately release this report and explain why they have been sitting on it throughout our province’s many tragic disasters.”

In a January letter that was also sent to Minister of Economic Development Susan Corkum-Greek, Minister of Public Works Kim Masland and her deputy minister Peter Hackett, the COO of Build Nova Scotia, Gordon Stevens, declined a request from a legislative committee clerk to table the report for a standing committee on natural resources and economic development. He said he was still reviewing and assessing the assumptions made by FarrPoint, the consultant that authored the report. FarrPoint has offices in Halifax and Great Britain.

The Globe and Mail obtained a partially redacted copy of the report through a freedom of information request to the province’s Public Works department. The redactions include specific geographic coverage information for each telecommunications company – Bell, Rogers, Telus and Eastlink – which provide cellular service to Nova Scotians through a network of cell towers and roaming agreements.

The study breaks down the total number of civic addresses with no cellular coverage, by county, throughout the province. It showed more than 21,000 households – or 4.6 per cent of Nova Scotians – lack cellular service in their homes, particularly in the west of Cumberland County, across Guysborough County, Antigonish, Richmond and through Inverness County.

Cumberland County, Guysborough County, Halifax County and Inverness County have more than 2,000 uncovered civic addresses each and represent the largest geographic uncovered areas, said the report.

The report also showed that more than 1,000 kilometres of primary roads in the province are cellular dead zones. Halifax, the most populous area of the region, is one of the most underserved counties with 104 kilometres of road without a cellular signal.

The report posed two potential solutions: It determined 25 new tower sites chosen as providing the best return – closing the gap on nearly half of unserved civic addresses and primary roads. It also identified 73 sites that would cover two-thirds of uncovered civic addresses and unserved primary roads. Cost figures were redacted from the report.

The report concluded that the Build Nova Scotia is now “in a position to better understand the existing cellular coverage across the province and the areas of poor coverage, and the scale of capital cost required to provide additional coverage.”

When asked what steps Build Nova Scotia has taken since receiving the report, spokeswoman Kelly Rose said the province is still reviewing the report with the goal to develop solutions that leverage any federal initiatives planned or underway.

“Build Nova Scotia is currently working to propose a government strategy that would provide service to underrepresented areas, strengthening the network throughout the province,” wrote Ms. Rose in response to questions from The Globe.

“The strategy would include closing or reducing the underserved areas as quickly as possible, regardless of the technology used and this effort would be in conjunction with potential technology partners to address.”

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