Northwestel ponders its backup plan

In geometry, the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line. If only it were that simple when it came to providing the Yukon with a backup fibre-optic cable to help avoid future internet outages.

In geometry, the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line. If only it were that simple when it came to providing the Yukon with a backup fibre-optic cable to help avoid future internet outages.

The simplest route would be to simply bury a second fibre line along the far side of the Alaska Highway. Unfortunately, that may also be the most expensive option, says Paul Flaherty, Northwestel’s president and CEO.

That’s largely thanks to a rocky and mountainous section between southern Yukon and Dawson Creek, B.C. Laying the existing cable along this stretch proved hard enough. It required tedious work with rocksaws and that was the easy side. The far roadside runs along a lake.

“You’d probably be looking at $40 to $50 million to do it,” said Flaherty.

That’s why Northwestel is looking at two other, counter-intuitive routes.

The first would see fibre strung from Carcross to Skagway, then on to Juneau, where it would connect with existing undersea cables that run from Anchorage to Seattle.

The second would see fibre buried along the Dempster Highway, up to Inuvik, where it would hook into the Northwest Territories’ ambitious plans to run a fibre-optic connection down the Mackenzie Valley to outside Fort Simpson, where the cable would tie in with existing fibre lines.

Lately, hopes have faded for the Alaskan undersea route. That’s because the plan depends on Northwestel striking a deal with Alaska’s three big Internet companies. That doesn’t appear likely to happen.

“We’d hope we’d create a deal where we’d swap capacity,” said Flaherty. “We’d give them some of our fibre so they could go inland and down to the U.S. and they’d give us some of their cables. Right now we’re not getting a lot of interest in that.”

The cost of stringing cable to Juneau is estimated at around $15 to $20 million, said Flaherty.

Without a deal struck with Alaskan providers, the annual cost of leasing American fibre could reach $1 million, he said.

That’s a big operational cost that’s hard for Northwestel to justify.

“There’s not a lot of new revenue from diversity,” said Flaherty. “People are going to pay more money just because it’s redundant.”

So he wants to take a more roundabout route south, by first heading north.

Extending fibre up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik only makes sense if the Mackenzie Valley fibre link becomes a reality – and that, Flaherty concedes, “is a big if.”

The project would see 1,115 kilometres of fibre strung along the Mackenzie Valley to Inuvik. The government of the Northwest Territories is pushing the project as a potential public-private partnership.

It would be costly. A feasibility study by Salter Global Consulting in June 2011 put the cost at $62 million. But the fibre link could also be a money-maker.

That’s because the fibre would tie into a satellite ground station at Inuvik. Satellites that circle the Arctic currently have few places to beam down data.

A similar ground station in Sweden raked in $150 million in 2010, according to a statement by the Northwest Territories Chamber of Commerce.

The Mackenzie Valley project would also bring broadband Internet to Fort Simpson, Wrigley, Tulita, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.

Tying the Yukon into this network would cost an additional $30 million. (Currently, the territory’s fibre extends to Carmacks, but the company plans to lay cable up to Pelly Crossing this year.)

That’s a bigger upfront price than the Juneau route, but it lacks the heavy annual leasing costs. Flaherty expects the total cost of both projects would equal out over time.

And the Dempster route would offer a better backup to the Yukon’s communities north of Whitehorse.

“We could get a full ring that could protect all of the communities, including Dawson, as well as the communities in the Northwest Territories,” said Flaherty.

“We’re trying to generate some discussion about it.”

The timeline of this work remains unclear for now. “You’re probably talking a few years out,” he said.

Also unclear is whether the Yukon government would be expected to pitch in money.

“It’s hard to say,” said Flaherty. “They may put some money in it.”

In the meantime, Northwestel and the Yukon have struck new protocols to prevent future fibre snips within the territory.

Ditching crews managed to dig up Internet cables north of Whitehorse twice last summer. “It’s not necessarily their fault,” said Flaherty. “The bank had shifted and the cables had shifted.”

Now, among other rule changes, “anyone who’s going to dig in the right-of-way is going to have to hand dig within three feet of the located fibre,” said Flaherty.

It’s been two years since Whitehorse suffered its last Internet outage due to a snipped fibre-optic cable to the south. Since then, Northwestel spent $10 million to provide a backup along this southern route between Fort Nelson and Hay River.

Yet Yukoners continue to grouse about the outages that last occurred. Flaherty understands why.

“I remember being at the airport one time, and the machines to check you in, none of them worked. So your ability to fly just stopped. Shopper’s Drug Mart closed their doors and said, ‘We can’t operate because we tie into national systems for inventory and cash registers.’ It’s important.”

Flaherty disputes some of the findings of a report prepared by Imaituk, a Winnipeg-based consultancy that studied the North’s telecommunications challenges for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency last year.

The report describes federal officials unable to videoconference in Whitehorse for lack of bandwidth.

“There are no bandwidth constraints to Whitehorse,” he said. “We’ve had a 30-meg connection for the last year or two, and we now have a 50-meg connection, just offered about a month ago. That data is becoming stale fast.”

The report also describes how the telecommunications systems of Iqaluit became overwhelmed by a military exercise. But it omits an important fact, said Flaherty.

“What they didn’t say was they told us all the requirements they wanted us to meet, and we put in all the facilities to meet their requirements, and then they ended up with 200 extra people. All the sudden, we’re being criticized … but their need was double what they initially told us,” he said.

“If someone had given us the right requirements, there wouldn’t have been an issue.”

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