The Yukon government suspended service without warning last month to cell phones it had provided to vulnerable women during the COVID-19 pandemic after users racked up tens of thousands of dollars in data overage fees.
The government had announced April 3 that it would be providing, in collaboration with the Yukon Status of Women Council and Northwestel, 325 phones with calling, texting and data capabilities to women vulnerable to violence “in order to give them options to safely access the support they need.”
The program was scheduled to last four months, with the women taking ownership of the devices while the government covered the cost of a group phone plan.
However, the phones suddenly all lost connectivity on May 29.
Jeanie Dendys, the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate, said in an interview June 1 that the government made a “quick decision” to cut off service after higher-than-anticipated data usage resulted in significant fees.
“It really had gotten to the point where we were depleting (funds for) the whole program before the end of the second month,” she said.
In an email, Yukon government spokesperson Stewart Burnett said that the group plan the government had with Bell included 975 GB of data a month, or 3 GB per phone.
However, the women had used 4,865GB of data one-and-a-half months in, Burnett wrote, which cost the Women’s Directorate $58,756.
The department had allocated, at the outset of the project, $52,000 to cover the entire four months.
“If that trend of data use continued, the program would have cost more than $156,000 for four months,” Burnett wrote.
The nature of the plan, Dendys said, made it impossible to limit the amount of data used by any given device, and the plan now, is to reinstate service to the phones but to only provide them with calling and texting capabilities — no data. She suggested that, with more businesses and public spaces starting to open up, women could use free wifi networks to access the internet instead.
Heidi Marion, the program coordinator for the Yukon Status of Women Council, said none of the women with phones were given any warning about the cut-off.
“I started getting phone calls and other agencies started getting phone calls from women saying, you know, ‘All of a sudden, my phone isn’t working!’” she said in an interview June 1.
“And we were thinking it was a technical glitch or, a lot of the women have never owned phones before, and so we thought maybe they were having a problem that could be rectified by just somebody who knew how to use a phone helping them … We were speechless when we found that this was a deliberate suspension on the part of the government.”
Marion said the program, up until then, had been well-received by the women it was helping and that the council had received “all kinds of wonderful responses” from women who could now call friends for support and help, or access webpages to apply for other support programs.
“We’ve had people burst out crying when they’re given the phones because it’s just meant so much to them in their situation,” she said, describing the program as a “real game-changer.”
Whitehorse resident Michelle Stimson told the News June 2 that she received a phone as part of the program about a month ago and described the “information availability” the data gave her — access to the latest COVID-19 updates for example, or missing persons cases — as “magic.”
However, she said her phone stopped working about a week ago.
“Not a notification, not a warning, not a, ‘Hey, too much data…’ It just stopped, and in the sense of not evening being able to text or call,” Stimson said.
“It’s like using your phone for one minute and the next minute it’s gone… I’m just a client that got a phone and felt really grateful, and then felt like I was slapped in the face.”
The library, where she normally goes to access wifi, is still closed, she noted, and her building doesn’t have wifi either.
Both Stimson and Marion said that while still having calling and texting capabilities was good, they’d like to see the government reinstate data for the remainder of the program as well, especially because women given the phones were told they would have data access for the entirety of the four months.
Dendys acknowledged that the “unplanned suspension of the program was really disruptive which was not what was intended.”
“It was just an issue that had come up and we had to deal with it immediately,” she said.
The government, she said, has “committed to a needs assessment and evaluation of the program” to determine what will happen at the end of the four months, and “ how to potentially provide other vulnerable Yukoners with phone and internet access at the planned end of the program.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections: A previous version of this story said the Yukon Status of Women Council did not receive a warning that service to the phones would be suspended. Council program coordinator Heidi Marion told the News June 4 that the government had, in fact, emailed the council on May 27, when 61 phones were initially taken offline. However, due to staff vacations, no one saw the email until after this story was first published.
The story also said the Yukon government announced the program on March 3. It had, in fact, announced the program on April 3. The News regrets the error.