Northwestel’s triumph is a heavy burden to bear

Imagine, if you will, a long string of interwoven glass threads stretching across the landscape for hundreds of kilometres.

Imagine, if you will, a long string of interwoven glass threads stretching across the landscape for hundreds of kilometres.

It winds through almost impassable mountain landscapes, carves through provincial parks, passes under roadway pavement and bounds through the air over poles amongst the pine trees.

It crackles inside with the red light of a laser beam: an optical depiction of a massive volume of voices, movies, pictures and credit card purchases. That beam bounces from wall to wall of the glass threads with a speed that can only be surpassed in the vacuum of outer space.

This is Northwestel’s latest triumph, the final piece of a fibre optics puzzle that at last launches the Yukon territory into the modern telecommunication age.

The silica-based string is 320 kilometres long, cost the company $14 million and took three years of hard work to lay down.

In other words, the Yukon finally has a big, fat pipe to the global internet. The bad old days of a microwave-based country lane are done.

So Alaska Highway be damned, we’re in real touch with the outside world and ready for the future up here.

Despite the space-age technological achievement, Northwestel’s spiffy new network is actually based on centuries-old scientific ideas and materials.

Fibre optics, for example, are born of a simple theory of light reflection: that when a beam hits a surface at a specific angle, that beam in its entirety will bounce back again.

The concept was first tested in the early 1800s when scientists managed to prevent light from escaping water by bouncing it off the surface.

Fibre optics is an advanced application of this simple phenomenon. A beam of light bounces back and forth inside a glass thread. It’s unable to escape because it always hits the inner surface of the thread at the same angle.

But this phenomenon – called total internal reflection – wasn’t actually even considered as a method of telecommunications until the 1960s. That’s when a Japanese scientist invented several devices that made such an application possible.

Of course, fibre optics went on to drive the dot-com bubble as the best way to make the internet bad in a good way.

Then there’s the stuff the light bounces around inside. This material has been recognized as useful for millennia.

Silica is the second-most plentiful substance on earth (after oxygen).

I was at the beach in Vancouver last week and it was all around me, as sand.

The Yukon is literally encased in it, with its quartzy geography.

We eat silica, we brush our teeth with it, we drive around on it in our tires. We toast our successes with it in wine, we walk on it in our sidewalks. And we look through it every day as windows.

Its hardness as a material for tools has been recognized since antiquity.

So, you see, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the Yukon has crested the wave of the 21st century riding a surfboard crafted from age-old knowledge and ancient materials.

And when Northwestel flips the switch on the new network in a few short days (it goes live September 1) we’ll all instantly enjoy the benefits that fibre optics offers.

Access to the internet will get faster. And the volume of data that we can transmit and receive will increase prolifically.

Because that’s the best quality of a fibre-optic network: it can carry massive amounts of data at the speed of light (well, almost).

Of course, as we all get markedly better internet service, Northwestel’s new fibre link becomes a great weight for the company to carry.

Up until now, the company could blame its paltry internet service on the limitations of a decrepit microwave network.

No more.

With a big, fat fibre network, Northwestel can do whatever it wants.

Because along with the fibre network Northwestel got some new management technologies that put full control of the Yukon’s internet right in Northwestel’s hand.

If the company wants us to receive better access to the internet, it turns the faucet on. If it wants us to suffer a poverty of data, it just stems the flow.

So as great as the new fibre link is, there is no formal system of accountability for Northwestel’s conduct regarding its line south.

No regulatory body oversees the manner in which Northwestel dispenses access to the internet.

Yet we all recognize how essential the internet has become to a contemporary lifestyle.

We can only hope that Northwestel recognizes its new kinship with Spider-Man who famously recognized that, “with great power comes great responsibility.’‘

Otherwise there’s gonna be a heck of a lot of Doc Ocks and Green Goblins running around in the North.

Andrew Robulack is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer and technology solutions consultant specializing in Macs, the internet, and mobile devices. Read his blog online


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Wyatt’s World

Wyatt’s World for March 5, 2021.

City councillor Samson Hartland in Whitehorse on Dec. 3, 2018. Hartland has announced his plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 21 municipal election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillor sets sights on mayor’s chair

Hartland declares election plans

Premier Sandy Silver speaks to media after delivering the budget in the legislature in Whitehorse on March 4. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Territorial budget predicts deficit of $12.7 million, reduced pandemic spending in 2021-2022

If recovery goes well, the territory could end up with a very small surplus.

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25 after two masked men entered a residence, assaulted a man inside with a weapon and departed. (Black Press file)
Two men arrested after Dawson City home invasion

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25.… Continue reading

Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters at a news conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 21, 2017. New ATIPP laws are coming into effect April 1. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News file)
New access to information laws will take effect April 1

“Our government remains committed to government openness and accountability.”

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Public Health Nurse Angie Bartelen at the Yukon Convention Centre Clinic in Whitehorse on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
State of emergency extended for another 90 days

“Now we’re in a situation where we see the finish line.”

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been postponed indefinitely. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
2022 Arctic Winter Games postponed indefinitely

Wood Buffalo, Alta., Host Society committed to rescheduling at a later date

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)
South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

RCMP Online Crime Reporting website in Whitehorse on March 5. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Whitehorse RCMP launch online crime reporting

Both a website and Whitehorse RCMP app are now available

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Most Read