Fibre plan still missing a few wires

It may not be well understood that the Yukon suffered from not one, but two big-time communication breakdowns this week.

It may not be well understood that the Yukon suffered from not one, but two big-time communication breakdowns this week.

The first, of course, occurred when construction workers accidentally snipped the only fibre-optic cable that connects the territory to Outside late Wednesday morning. Anyone who depended on an Internet connection for work was out of luck for the following five hours.

We’re not just talking about the many government workers who could be seen milling around coffee shops with lost looks on their faces. Retailers struggled to process debit and credit card payments. Businesses that depended on telephone systems with voice-over-Internet setups were simply unable to make or take calls. Putting out a newspaper wasn’t exactly easy, either.

Periodic Internet outages may quality as a First World problem, but these too-frequent interruptions take a real toll on the territory’s productivity. The Yukon suffered a similar outage in 2014. And in 2012. And in 2011. And four times in 2010. And in 2009.

Many residents are understandably ticked off about it. And, increasingly, they are blaming our political leaders, who have promised for years to do something about it, but have, so far, very little to show.

That explains why Premier Darrell Pasloski’s office took special interest in the matter that day. It ensured that the public knew very little about what his government has accomplished to date on this file, by refusing to answer any questions and ordering his officials in the Department of Economic Development, who have been in charge of the file, to do the same.

The premier did issue a statement, promising that a plan would be forthcoming in the “coming months.” How many, pray tell? Three? 18? 294? It should be noted that a minister offered a similar promise of a plan “in coming months” back in May. If the premier wants to reassure the public, he could start by offering a more specific time frame.

It’s understandable that our leaders will be tight-lipped about some details of their plans until they’ve been nailed down. But that doesn’t explain why the government refuses to explain what work it’s done to date. It has spent public money on this project, and, at the moment, it is unwilling to publicly explain how, and to what effect. There is no justifiable reason for this idiocy, beyond the fact that our cabinet, who have been dragging their feet on this file for years, now seek to minimize their own embarrassment.

The government has spent years pondering the best route to run a second fibre-optic line. Some have touted connecting to Juneau or Skagway, and on to existing undersea cables to Outside. Others, notably Northwestel, the owner of Yukon’s existing fibre-optic line, have pushed for a new cable to be run up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. That would connect with another fibre-optic line currently being built up the Mackenzie Valley by the Northwest Territories government.

Each route has its advantages and drawbacks. Those who tout the Dempster route note that it has the benefit of offering back-up to every community, by offering Internet connectivity in either direction of a massive loop of cable around northern Canada, whereas the Alaska route would still leave Yukon communities north of Whitehorse vulnerable to outages.

It should be noted that nearly all of the fibre snips, for whatever reason, have occurred south of Whitehorse. More to the point, the Alaskan route looks considerably cheaper. And a big piece of it is already being put into place. It’s been nearly a year since Alaska Power & Telephone announced plans to run undersea cable from Juneau to Skagway. Provided that the Yukon could broker a deal to piggyback on this line, all we’d need to do is run a new cable from Carcross to Skagway.

If our leaders had their act together, this work would be well underway already. It’s a simple enough job to be completed in a single season. Its cost should be modest, at least when compared to some infrastructure plans kicked about by the Yukon government, such as the goofy, $200-million scheme to twin the Alaska Highway past Whitehorse. And its economic impact should be considerable, by making it easier for the territory to lure high-tech workers here – an avowed goal of our territorial government. Instead, we have a big pile of studies on the subject, and a commitment from our leaders to plan to make a plan – as they have promised for years.

Admittedly, there are some complicated questions beyond which route to pick. One is who owns and maintains the line. Will it be the government itself? A private company? Or some mix of the two? But officials have spent years dwelling on all this. They should have answers by now.

And if you’d like to know the details of how public money has been spent working on this file? Sorry, but it looks like the premier believes it’s none of your business.

Last year the Yukon government budgeted $600,000 toward planning a second fibre-optic line. How has this money been spent? The government won’t say.

A consortium of First Nations have expressed interest in partnering with the government to help build and maintain a second fibre-optic line. Where do things stand with these plans? Again, the government won’t say.

Contemptuous of the public? Certainly. But it fits Pasloski’s playbook: when an embarrassment presents itself, kick it under the carpet.

The next time the Internet conks out, be sure to remember our premier says it’s a priority of his to fix the situation. And also remember that there can be a big difference between saying something is a priority, and treating it like one.