Raj Dulala likes exploring different countries, and different places. That’s why he and his wife ended up driving north from Massachusetts this summer to traverse the Trans-Labrador Highway.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he told CBC News. “We had a great time. Met a lot of interesting people … The coast of Labrador is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in the world.”
Dulala says he did his research online in advance, and found out about a program — run by the provincial government — to provide free satellite phones for emergency use to those trekking across the highway.
He picked one up in Wabush, and dropped it off more than 1,100 kilometres away in L’Anse au Clair.
They didn’t need to use the phone, and Dulala says the highway wasn’t as “sketchy or scary” as he thought it might be, based on posts he read online. Significant upgrades in recent years mean it’s almost entirely paved now, and not as treacherous as it was in the past.
But Dulala said there was no cell service “whatsoever” for long stretches, and areas where they didn’t see anybody for hours on end. Calling for help would have been impossible without the loaner satellite phone.
“In case of emergency, I think it is a great service to have,” he said.
“It was a great safety net.”
Original total of 80 phones has sharply declined
But documents obtained by CBC News show that the safety net appears to have become a little frayed in recent years.
More than half of the original number of phones have gone missing. As of last fall, the original number of 80 had dwindled to 31.
That’s according to briefing materials prepared last fall for the transportation minister, before a meeting with the Combined Councils of Labrador. Officials there had asked for an update on the service.
“(Transportation department) staff have noted gaps in the documentation collected when phones are signed in and out, presenting a challenge to locate missing units,” the briefing note advised.
“Further, without reliable information, it is difficult to seek reimbursement. The organizations participating in the program do so on a volunteer basis leaving (the department) with limited recourse.”
Travellers can pick up the phones or drop them off at 10 locations across Labrador, free of charge. They are set up to allow calls to 24-hour 911 service in Labrador City.
In a statement to CBC News, the transportation department pegged the number of phones a year ago at 38, and not the 31 referenced in the briefing document.
The department said 38 remain in use today.
Officials could not immediately reconcile that number with the different one in the briefing note.
CBC News called all 10 locations listed as participating in the emergency cell phone program Wednesday afternoon, to get a snapshot of phone availability.
One location has since closed down.
Three of the remaining nine — in Wabush, Churchill Falls, and one of two hotels in Goose Bay — said they had a phone or phones available. In Wabush, there were a dozen or more.
The other six locations — in Cartwright, Port Hope Simpson, Charlottetown, Red Bay, L’Anse au Clair and the second hotel in Goose Bay — didn’t have any.
The emergency program is not a big-ticket item, from a financial perspective. It costs the department about $30,000 to $40,000 per year, and the purchase price for the phones is about $1,000 per unit.
It’s not clear what, if anything, the province has since done to address the issue.
Transportation department officials did not make anyone available for an interview, and provided a written statement to CBC News that echoed much of what was in the briefing note.
Public safety radio system
Two years ago, the department kickstarted the process to create a province-wide public safety radio system for first responders.
Officials said at the time that could be leveraged to improve cell phone coverage where feasible, but provided no details.
The department now says that Bell Mobility submitted its response in August to the RFP for a new radio-telecommunications system. Bell was the only proponent compliant with the requirements of a previous request for qualifications.
Officials are reviewing the submission and an update will be provided whenever that process is complete.