Northwestel stumped by Dawson cellphone screwups

Cellphone service is shoddy in Dawson City. Subscribers to Latitude Wireless are finding that their calls often won't connect with landlines or toll-free numbers.

Cellphone service is shoddy in Dawson City.

Subscribers to Latitude Wireless are finding that their calls often won’t connect with landlines or toll-free numbers.

The problem started about a month ago, according to several Dawsonites, and has become a more frequent occurrence over the past two weeks.

Cellphones are still peculiar in Dawson City, and it probably isn’t yet socially acceptable to flourish one over a pint at The Pit. But the devices have found a following in West Dawson, across the Yukon River, where residents don’t have the option of having their cabins wired to landlines.

Gaby Sgaga is one. Whether her cellphone works is of particular importance to her, because she uses it to check up on her 83-year-old mother.

Reception’s not the problem. When the phone works, calls come in clear.

Instead, a call to a landline will often ring a dozen times, then switch over to a message that says the customer she’s trying to reach is unable to answer the phone. Yet her mother’s phone hasn’t actually rung. The problem is particular to cellphones: a call from another landline will go straight through.

This has caused Sgaga to worry needlessly at times about her mother, only to realize it was a problem with her phone.

“If I have to get dressed and start the Ski-Doo and go down there because I can’t get through, that’s a little inconvenient,” she said.

That’s an understatement, particularly when you consider that she typically pays about $80 per month for a service that doesn’t work properly.

Over the past few weeks, Sgaga’s spoken several times to technicians at Northwestel, which launched the cellphone service in 2006 as a partnership with the business arm of the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations.

“They say there have been a lot of issues in Dawson recently. They admit that,” she said.

Yet, a query put to Northwestel spokesperson Anne Kennedy last week produced the following response from the repair centre manager: “He hasn’t received any information, either by way of complaints from customers, or alarms or indications at network control, that there’s any problems on the network side,” she said.

Maybe it’s a problem with Sgaga’s phone, said Kennedy.

But that’s clearly not so, as testimonies from several other residents of West Dawson demonstrate.

“Obviously there’s a problem. They just don’t know how to fix it,” said Sebastian Weisser.

He’s experiencing the same problem. And he’s also phoned Northwestel to complain.

A big reason why he bought his phone was to stay in touch with friends and family in France. But toll-free calls won’t go through, so he isn’t able to use his calling card for cheaper long-distance calls.

He first noticed the problem about month ago, on and off. It’s become worse over the past two weeks.

“They’ve told us that there’s a problem in Dawson and they’re working on it,” he said.

Justine Cottingham-Leblanc is having the same problem. But she’s noticed that her phone works fine in Whitehorse – offering further support to the idea that the problem is with Dawson’s cellphone infrastructure. “It’s really hit and miss,” she said.

Catrina Douglas is another Dawsonite with cellphone trouble. She needs her phone because she’s an on-call teacher.

And she’s from Scotland, so, like Weisser, she wishes that she could use her calling card to phone home.

But when she tries to use the card’s toll-free number, her phone misinterprets the digits she dials and “It puts me through to places like the Barbados and California and then cuts me off.”

A technician tried to trace her calls, and “When I dialed the number, it was as if I wasn’t actually dialing. They couldn’t trace it. So there’s all sorts of things going on.

“That was a few weeks ago. I’m still having troubles with the phone. It’s just a disaster.”

On Monday, Kennedy acknowledged that more than one customer was “potentially” being affected by cellphone troubles in Dawson City.

But other than that, “I haven’t gotten any further information,” she said.

The company’s lead technician said Kennedy, is “having a hard time pinpointing the trouble.”

Contact John Thompson at