After going three full days without cellular, landline and internet access, seven communities in central Saskatchewan saw those services restored overnight.

In an update Wednesday morning, SaskTel said all telecommunications services are back online in Mildred, Chitek Lake, Leoville, Shell Lake, Witchekan Lake, Rabbit Lake and Belbutte.

However, SaskTel spokesperson Michelle Englot said Wednesday that Spiritwood could be waiting another week for landline and data access.

Residents in the affected communities lost the services early Sunday morning when a fire broke out in a SaskTel building in Spiritwood and damaged transport and core equipment.

Spiritwood had cell service restored after SaskTel brought in a “cellular on wheels” overnight Sunday, but at last word the utility was asking residents in the town to only make emergency voice calls until all services in the area are back.

Local residents were advised to physically travel to first responders in the event of emergencies because there was no access to 911.

Earlier in the week, SaskTel warned it could be 10 days before the disruption was completely resolved.

Englot said the utility still needs to construct a new central distribution office at the site of its burned building in order to have a permanent fix for all services.

She said the restoration of landline and internet services in Spiritwood is tied to the construction of the new office.

“So we’re looking at potentially another week,” she said. “But that’s tentative based on us getting all of the equipment that is required to entirely replace the structure that was lost.”

She said SaskTel is distributing cellular devices to locations in Spiritwood that normally rely on landlines, adding the next step is helping some local merchants get their point-of-purchase systems back up.

‘Wake up call’

The length of the outage is not sitting well with Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan. 

McLellan said this is the end-of-summer season for businesses in lake country in the affected area and that the outage will have cost them business through lost bookings or the inability for customers to make payment.

“It’s a very frustrating situation for them. I can guarantee you,” he said.

McLellan said that while SaskTel and other wireless providers in the province “do a very good job,” Saskatchewan’s cellular system is not sustainable enough.

He said this province can no longer have an entire region go without telecommunications services for this length of time.

“So this is a wake up call to Saskatchewan businesses and governments to say, ‘Let’s figure out how to make this situation so it never happens again,'” he said.

Outage knocked out ATMS, debit machines

The outage has also affected the ability for local residents to pay for goods and services, as debit machines, ATMS and banks rely on telecommunications services.

Dan Johnson, CEO of Innovation Credit Union, said the outage forced the closure of its branches and ATMs in Leoville and Shell Lake the last few days, but both locations have reopened Wednesday with full services.

He said Innovation has about 2,000 members in the region and they would have had to drive to the closest unaffected community with banking services to access cash the last few days.

“We haven’t heard of any kind of major event where they were limited with cash,” he said.

He said lack of internet services prevented the ATMs from being available, but that the credit union wasn’t prepared to open its branches or ATMs without 911 service in place for the safety of its staff and members.

“We haven’t heard a lot of negative feedback. It’s all been very understanding.”

He said the credit union views this as a “significant incident” but added the length of time it took SaskTel to restore services in the area was “pretty good.”

“I know it was two to three days of disruption, but their location basically burned right to the ground. And within that period of time they had things up and running,” he said.

“So we’re pretty excited about the work that SaskTel did.”

At last word, SaskTel said the cause of Sunday morning’s fire was still under investigation.

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