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Rural Ontario village finally gets its cell tower, but service is stuck on hold

A completed cellular tower near Clayton, Ont. awaits an electrical connection (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)
A completed cellular tower near Clayton, Ont. awaits an electrical connection (Stu Mills/CBC - image credit)
A completed cellular tower near Clayton, Ont. awaits an electrical connection
A completed cellular tower near Clayton, Ont. awaits an electrical connection

The recently erected cellular tower near the village of Clayton awaits an electrical connection. (Stu Mills/CBC)

People living in a cellphone dead zone southwest of Ottawa finally have a new communications tower, but mobile service remains on hold.

That's because a recently finished Rogers Communications cellular tower at the intersection of Tatlock and Clayton roads near the village of Clayton is still waiting to be connected to a power source.

The rural area in Mississippi Mills has long been notorious for its poor 911 coverage — and a number of emergencies where prompt cellular service was needed but unavailable.

One February morning in 2018, a car carrying teenage siblings on their way to school hit black ice and plunged off a nearby bridge and into a river.

The brother and sister managed to escape from the icy water but weren't able to reach help because they couldn't get a cellular signal.

"We're very fortunate," said their father Chris Armstrong a year after the incident.

Dangerous work, missed opportunities

Though Steve Parfitt has worked as an arborist in his native Australia, the United Kingdom and eastern Ontario, the area around Clayton sticks out as particularly dangerous.

"This is pretty, pretty bad," said Parfitt as he took a break from a job near Clayton's main intersection.

Arborist Steve Parfitt said the risks of his trade made it necessary to be aware of locations around the worksite where an emergency cell phone call can be made
Arborist Steve Parfitt said the risks of his trade made it necessary to be aware of locations around the worksite where an emergency cell phone call can be made

Arborist Steve Parfitt said the risks of his trade mean his crew must map out where they can make a call from in the event of an emergency. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Parfitt said when his crew comes to work in the area with their chainsaws, axes, wood chippers and other potentially lethal tools, they work out in advance where an emergency call can be made.

"Every second counts when you have a major cut," he said.

At Fortune Farms, Jamie and Sherry Fortune eagerly await connection of the tower that has risen near their sugar bush.

"It's been frustrating," Jamie Fortune said.

Access to the internet would allow visitors who get lost find to their way out of the woods, and also post about their visit to the farm on social media.

"It will bring a whole new level of technology that we can use in the woods," Fortune said.

Jamie Fortune said he looks forward to the tower going into service so that his sugarbush visitors can share pictures and find their way out of woods.
Jamie Fortune said he looks forward to the tower going into service so that his sugarbush visitors can share pictures and find their way out of woods.

Jamie Fortune says he looks forward to reliable cellular service so visitors to his sugar bush can share pictures and find their way out of woods. (Stu Mills/CBC)

'We're really excited'

The new tower is one of 17 planned for the area under a $300-million project announced in December by the Eastern Ontario Regional Network (EORN), the federal and provincial governments, and Rogers.

"Certainly there are definite areas where you're only going to get one bar or no service, and that can be frustrating at times, for sure," said Kurt Greaves, chief administrative officer for Lanark County.

"Clayton has been a dead spot for a long time," he said. "There's been talk in the past about new towers going up but it's never happened, so we're really excited."

Even at the General Store in the centre of Clayton, Ont. it is very difficult to make a cell phone call.
Even at the General Store in the centre of Clayton, Ont. it is very difficult to make a cell phone call.

Even at the Clayton General Store in the centre of the village, it's difficult to get a cell signal. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Greaves said it was his understanding that Hydro One would endeavour to connect the tower to the electrical grid by July. The electricity transmission and distribution service provider didn't respond to questions from CBC in time for publication.

Greaves said he hopes Bell might also "co-locate" its wireless equipment on the new tower after it finally goes live.

In an email, a Bell spokesperson said there were "no immediate plans to leverage the tower in development," but added Bell would continue to evaluate the opportunity.