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Can you call 9-1-1 without power?

February 8th,2023 | News

Fibre optic networks are arriving in the Hills. No one disputes the fact that fibre communications technology is better than old, landline copperwiring, but what happens when the power goes out?

That is the question posed by Chelsea resident and former Ottawa city planner Don Moxley. He said he is embracing the new technology, which will provide him with high-speed internet service, but worries that the switch in technology hasn’t been fully thought through, especially when it comes to accessing emergency services during power outages.

And there will be outages.

Recent severe weather events have caused several significant power interruptions in the Hills. Since Sept. 30 there have been countless outages — the exact number yet to be confirmed by Quebec-Hydro.

“There are a lot of trees around,” Moxley said, noting just before Christmas that a tree came down on his property that “took out three hydro poles,” leaving his family without power for two days. With extreme weather events, “a lot of things can happen at the same time, which stretches Hydro’s maintenance system and upsets customers,” he added.

Many residents have kept their landlines, the old phone lines connected by copper wires, specifically for the event of power outages. The landlines have their own power supply and work when the power is out, Moxley explained. Moxley and his family lived through the 1998 ice storm when, “everything was out for a week, but we still had service,” he commented, referring to his landline.

“It’s not the fibre that’s the problem; it’s a better technology. It’s whether you can access it when the power is out,” said Moxley. For him the big question is whether Bell and Cogeco, who are providing service in the Hills, will be using battery backup so service can continue during a power outage.

Phone companies can provide backup power systems, explained Moxley, “but it’s going to cost them money and they probably won’t do it unless the government requires them to.”

Bell has confirmed that, as new fibre systems are installed, the copper wire systems will be physically removed, leaving residents without landline phone service when there is no power. Fibre technology uses thin glass or plastic fibres to transmit data in the form of beams of light pulsed in a pattern.

“With fibre, home phone service, including access to 9-1-1 emergency services, requires a battery backup to continue working during power outages,” explained Éliane Légaré, public relations manager with Bell. “Battery backup systems can be found at most major electronics retailers,” Légaré stated, indicating that Bell customers will be on the hook for the costs of their own individual backup systems.

Cogeco communications advisor Laurise Roy-Tremblay stated that, “in case of a power failure, Cogeco has a backup system, which supports services for a while to allow emergency services to be available,” but did not specify how long “a while” is.

Both companies stated that it is possible to use your cell phone to call emergency services when the power is out. However, Moxley cautions that, in the event of a prolonged outage, it would be difficult to charge cell phones, some people living in rural areas have unreliable cell service, and older residents may not own cell phones at all.

In Moxley’s opinion, access to emergency services should be carefully considered before landlines are removed. He also has deliberately not “bundled” his home services, instead spreading wireless, internet, and landline over three companies. “I think putting all your eggs in one basket is a really bad idea,” he explained, adding, “if one system goes down, it takes everything with it.”

As older systems are replaced by fibre technology, Moxley said he wants people to be aware about the issue of accessing emergency services so that nobody will be surprised once the landlines are gone.

“People may not be paying attention,” he said, but in the future we will have to consider how to get emergency help when the lights go out.

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