Two months after a crash left a Labrador woman and her family waiting hours to connect to public Wi-Fi at a Trans-Labrador Highway depot — the only way they could let friends and family know what happened, given the region's lack of cellphone service — the provincial government says changes are in the works.
In November, Rebecca Larkham's mother was driving her, her sister and her daughter to Port Hope-Simpson. They hit a patch of black ice covered in slush, causing the truck to swerve, leave the highway and drop 15 feet over an embankment, landing in a brook.
The family climbed out of the truck, suffering from bruises and scratches — and in Larkham's case, a broken nose — and hitched a ride to the nearby Crooks Lake highway depot with a couple passing by.
Larkham said she had bruises and a broken nose, but her daughter only had a small cut and mother and sister had bruises. (Submitted by Rebecca Larkham)
But they weren't able to connect to the public Wi-Fi at the depot because it was password-protected. Highway workers who arrived at the depot two hours later gave Larkham the password. She says it was fortunate no one was seriously injured, given how long it took to make contact with anyone.
"Two hours at that point — what damages could have been done could have been a lot worse," Larkham said.
Cell service in Labrador isn't available outside communities — a driver heading east from Happy Valley-Goose Bay won't have cell service until they reach Port Hope Simpson, 400 kilometres away.
Public Wi-Fi provided by the provincial government is supposed to fill in the gaps, at Crooks Lake, about 150 kilometres south of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and at the Cartwright Junction, an estimated 300 kilometres. However, screenshots shared with CBC News show the wireless network has been password-protected for months.
The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure declined to do an interview on Larkham's concerns. Labrador Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster also initially declined the CBC's repeated requests for an interview, but after CBC Radio's Labrador Morning aired an interview with Larkham, the minister told CBC News during the province will be installing two new Starlink satellite dishes at highway depots, which she said will fix the password issue, in the coming weeks.
In an emailed statement, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said the public Wi-Fi isn't actually password-protected.
"The issue is that the Wi-Fi is automatically connecting with a different, password-protected server, rather than the public Wi-Fi available at the depots," said the statement, from department spokesperson Maria Browne. The department is working to resolve the issue, said Browne.
After the crash, Larkham says, her phone issued an emergency alert and contacted emergency services. (Submitted by Rebecca Larkham )
For Larkham, the problem can't be resolved too soon.
"It's a pain to go 400 kilometres with absolutely no way to check in with anybody," she said.
"Anything is better than the way they have it right now.… There has to be more to be offered than what it currently is, because had something been wrong, our story would definitely have a different ending."
Apple's satellite SOS system kicked in
Larkham said they were lucky she had recently gotten a new iPhone, one that has a new Apple satellite emergency system.
"My cellphone was saying 'Crash Detected' and 'Emergency Services Contacted,'" Larkham said. "I could put my phone up and it was telling me exactly what way to point towards a satellite."
Larkham says she and her family are lucky to have not been seriously injured in the crash. (Submitted by Rebecca Larkham)
The feature is only available on iPhone 14 and later models. Larkham said her sister and mother both have older model iPhones without the system.
The system allowed her to communicate over text with a 911 dispatcher. She let them know an ambulance wasn't urgently needed as well as how to contact her husband. The dispatcher was able to reach Larkham's husband to alert him about where to pick them up.
Satellite phone not working at crash site
The provincial government does have satellite phones that people can check out for free, but a 2021 CBC Investigates story found that more than half of them had gone missing. The couple that gave Larkham's family a ride had a satellite phone and tried to call for help.
"Their satellite phone wasn't working. They could not get no sense out of it," Larkham said. "They tried and tried and tried."