Northwestel considers new fibre optic line

For residents fed up with the territory's periodic Internet outages, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski's recent budget speech contained a promising tidbit.

For residents fed up with the territory’s periodic Internet outages, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski’s recent budget speech contained a promising tidbit.

Northwestel, with the help of the territorial government, is looking at building a second fibre-optic link to the Outside. It would serve as a backup for times when the primary connection is severed.

It’s early days for this plan, said Harvey Brooks, deputy minister of Economic Development. Northwestel is taking the lead, and the company, when contacted, didn’t offer any details.

The proposed route for the second fibre-optic line would run from Whitehorse to Skagway, then on to Juneau, where it would connect with an existing cable that connects to Seattle.

Early estimates suggest this would cost more than $15 million, said Brooks.

Another project being entertained by Northwestel would see fibre-optic cable run up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. The Canadian Space Agency may be interested in connecting the community to terrestrial broadband as a means of relaying data from low-orbiting satellites that circle the Arctic, said Brooks.

While these projects got passing mention in Pasloski’s budget speech, there’s no government money earmarked to help nudge them forward.

The premier also gave a nod to a report prepared last spring for the federal and territorial government entitled “A Matter of Survival: Arctic Communications Infrastructure in the 21st Century.” Prepared by Imaituk, a Winnipeg-based consulting firm, it provides a detailed justification for bolstering northern Internet services.

It tells how health, education, justice and even library services in the Yukon are all bumping up against the constraints of the territory’s existing bandwidth limits. Internet outages disrupt all these services, as well as the credit- and debit-card readers of retail businesses.

The Yukon’s Health Department uses a health information system, with servers based in Vancouver. It works but “managers are concerned there may not be enough capacity to handle the increased data flows between communities and Whitehorse and between Yukon and B.C.,” the report states.

Health officials are already feeling the pinch of bandwidth constraints.

“We have had numerous network outages between communities and Whitehorse – all single lines as well,” one Health official told the consultants.

“When they open the new hospital in Watson Lake, redundancy between Watson Lake and Whitehorse will become more important, same for Dawson City,” the official said.

“As we get more and more traffic between communities and Whitehorse, it gets more and more important to build in redundancy.”

Representatives with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada have trouble tapping federal databases from Whitehorse, given bandwidth constraints.

“They also do not participate in national video conferencing sessions,” the Imaituk report states. “This situation will only continue to worsen as southern technology evolves.”

The Yukon’s librarians, meanwhile, “are struggling to meet consumer demand, as visitors quickly reach the caps that have been set to keep bandwidth costs under control,” the report states. “Library users are not allowed to stream video or audio of any kind, even in a community with a fibre link, as costs are simply too high.”

These problems will only grow as more services go online.

Classrooms are being wired with interactive smart-boards while teachers now depend on the Internet to keep track with attendance through an online database.

Medical records and diagnostic images are being transmitted electronically.

Justice officials are already using video conferencing for multiple daily court proceedings. And Yukon College also plans to expand its online distance-learning programs.

If this all sounds bad, it’s worth remembering that the Yukon has the best Internet connectivity of Canada’s three territories. Nunavut depends exclusively on satellite-based Internet service.

As a result, officials there have taken to putting big files on memory sticks and sending them via communities by plane, resulting in delays of several weeks for the creation of drivers’ licences.

Yet the Yukon may have the least advantageous agreement with its Internet provider, the report suggests. The governments of the N.W.T. and Nunavut have a service level agreement with their Internet providers, which requires financial penalties to be paid if standards aren’t met.

But the Yukon government operates “under a grandfathered agreement, which contains only basic service levels,” the report states.

In 2003, most of the Yukon was hooked up to high-speed Internet for $23 million, of which $10 million was paid for by the Yukon government.

Big changes have occurred since then. YouTube, Skype, streaming movies and smartphones have all become commonplace, creating far greater demand for Internet bandwidth.

The report calls on the Canadian government to create a national strategy to bolster Internet services across the North. Without one, trouble may be on the way, the report suggests.

A case in point is Nunavut, where the territorial government recently switched to SSi Micro from Northwestel as its new data-service provider.

Northwestel has warned federal regulators that this resulted in “significant revenue losses that Northwestel relied upon to sustain the provision of services to remote high cost communities.”

It suggests the end result will be higher residential utility bills and may “put at risk the sustainability of providing basic telecommunications services to these high-cost satellite communities.”

Contact John Thompson at