Cell coverage for NWT highways, a $110M project, examined again

Last modified: February 9, 2021 at 5:11pm

NWT MLAs returned to the issue of cell coverage on the territory’s highways at the legislature – a problem the territorial government says is too expensive to easily fix.

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, echoing observations by Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty last year, said the lack of cell coverage on most NWT highways posed a deadly risk.

Addressing colleagues on Monday, Martselos focused on the consequences for people using Highway 5 between Fort Smith, in her district, and Hay River.


“This is a long stretch of road to have no cellular service,” she said.

“This is much-needed infrastructure that needs to be built in order to increase the level of safety for all travellers who use Highway 5.”

Frieda Martselos, MLA for Thebacha, in the Legislative Assembly on February 8, 2021.

While the territory recently introduced 9-1-1 service in all communities – previously, residents had to call local numbers for emergency services – it’s still impossible to call that number from most stretches of NWT highway.

Drivers without satellite devices capable of summoning help are often forced to wait for passersby to stop during emergencies.


Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek, responding to Martselos, acknowledged the issue and said her department was examining options, but fixes come at a steep price.

According to a December document responding to questions from Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge, the infrastructure needed to add cell coverage to all highways would cost about $110 million.

Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek in the Legislative Assembly on February 8, 2021.

“The simple reality … is there’s no private market for this, there’s no way of earning any sort of revenue or profit on this,” said Wawzonek.

“So, for this to go forward, there would have to be significant government support of the project.”

The territorial government will start by examining the cost of covering the stretch between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀, Wawzonek said, which sees more traffic than most NWT highways.


Speed of drivers a concern

Lafferty added residents are worried about the speeds reached by tractor trailers travelling up to Yellowknife.

“We must strive to make changes that could save lives on Highway 3,” he said.

“These tractor trailers don’t slow down.”

Jackson Lafferty, the MLA for Monfwi, in the Legislative Assembly on February 8, 2021.

Infrastructure minister Diane Archie agreed speed was a major concern, especially between Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀.

She said that while accidents still took place, the number of collisions between the two communities had declined by 76 percent between 1999 and 2019, despite traffic on the highway more than trebling.

Archie said she had seen speeding tractor trailers first-hand but added most drivers follow the speed limits.

“We need to come up with some ways to work with the communities … to have transport trucks reduce their speeds,” she said.

Lafferty suggested reducing the speed limit from the current 90 km/h to 70 km/h or introducing speed cameras.

Diane Archie, the minister of infrastructure, in the Legislative Assembly on February 8, 2021.

Archie said she would consult the public and transportation industry while working to find funding for another North Slave highway patrol officer.

“It is a possibility that reduced speed limits could alleviate some of the tragedy and accidents along the highway. It will have to be a coordinated safety campaign that would make the highway safer,” she said.

Archie said the NWT is developing a mandatory entry-level training program for new Class 1 truck drivers. That program is expected to be introduced in December.