Vapourware on the Dempster

The Yukon government's announcement of a backup fibre optic link along the Dempster Highway with NorthwesTel last week reminded me of the term "vapourware.

The Yukon government’s announcement of a backup fibre optic link along the Dempster Highway with NorthwesTel last week reminded me of the term “vapourware.” That’s old Silicon Valley slang for when a tech company hurriedly announces a flashy new software product that, in reality, has yet to be created.

As the Yukon News editorial writers pointed out, the announcement was remarkably sparse on detail even by the standards of government press releases. It even took some digging to find out how much the thing would cost. We still don’t know who is going to pay for some chunks of it.

Compare that to highway projects. Ministers are usually so proud of how much taxpayer money they are spending that they put up coloured signs with the price tag for us to admire.

It is good that we will have a backup fibre link. It is increasingly unacceptable – I would say it became unacceptable about five years ago – for every Internet-enabled device in the Yukon to randomly stop working for hours at a time whenever the backhoe operators of Fort Nelson get frisky.

It goes beyond email, cell phones and using your credit card in a store. The Internet is now nearly as essential to doing business as electricity. We are in the age of the “cloud.” Businesses increasingly rely on things like accounting software hosted in California, online ordering applications for their clients and so on.

It has even replaced “the dog ate my homework” as an excuse for kids. How can they do their homework if their teacher’s web page is offline and their shared project is trapped on a Google Docs server somewhere?

It is also good because having a backup fibre link will allow more and bigger tech businesses to locate here, which they can’t do today since many businesses literally cannot risk being offline for hours regularly or even days in an extreme incident.

However, there are still some important things for bureaucrats to work on as they de-vapour or “de-vape” the backup fibre announcement.

The first is that, as our N.W.T. cousins have done with their fibre link, the government needs to leverage its financial contribution to gain some power over pricing. NorthwesTel has the technical capabilities to run the new fibre. But it also has a strong financial incentive to keep prices high to protect its current monopoly position.

Think back to 1940 when the White Pass railway was the only way into the Yukon. Would it have been smart for the government to pay to build the Alaska Highway, then let White Pass operate it and set the tolls?

If that had happened, the highway would still be a gravel track and we would still be paying through the nose to rattle to Skagway on an eight-hour train ride.

A backup fibre that allows wholesale Internet prices to stay high in the Yukon will fix the problems with your personal email, the kids’ homework and using your credit card at the liquor store. But it will dramatically limit the growth of our tech economy.

Given how the mining, oil, gas, forestry and tourism parts of our economy are doing, it would be dumb to needlessly limit the growth of our tech economy. For example, we won’t have a chance of emulating places like Lulea in northern Sweden, which has attracted a Facebook data centre that saves energy by cooling the servers with crisp northern air.

The new scheme should have some cheap wholesale rates, encouraging economic development the way Iceland or Quebec do with cheap hydro electricity.

The cost structure of fibre cables supports this idea. Most of the cost is the up-front investment. Once built, you might as well light up all the fibres in the cable and use them. That’s from the point of view of the taxpaying public, of course. The interests of a monopoly fibre cable owner with one large government client would differ.

Part two of de-vaping the plan would include figuring out how to attract investment to the Yukon from businesses that will use the new infrastructure. The government should put as much money into luring tech businesses to the Yukon as it does for tourists or mining companies.

The targets include data centres, coding outfits, web marketing firms and the whole gamut of independent contractors and start-up artists. We need to figure out what attracts them, fix any obviously unappetizing policies or practices we have, and sell the idea of locating some of their tech activities here.

Next time you run into a politician at the airport going to a mining conference, ask them why you didn’t see them networking at Cloud Com 2015 in Vancouver? (That’s the IEEE’s 7th International Conference on Cloud Computing, in case you’re asking.)

The government also loses points for not putting the project out to tender, which might have attracted other viable proposals. That is now water under the bridge, however. The main thing is now to de-vape the pricing and economic development plans in a way the builds our economy in the long term.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won this year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show.

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

Just Posted

A proposed Official Community Plan amendment would designate a 56.3-hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. Whitehorse city council will vote on the second reading of the Official Community Plan amendment on Dec. 7. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
Future area of Whistle Bend considered by council

Members set to vote on second reading for OCP change

The City of Whitehorse’s projected deficit could be $100,000 more than originally predicted earlier this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City deficit could be just over $640,000 this year

Third quarter financial reports presented to council

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley speaks during a COVID-19 press conference in Whitehorse on Oct. 30. Masks became mandatory in the Yukon for anyone five years old and older as of Dec. 1 while in public spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
As mask law comes into effect, premier says $500 fines will be last resort

The territory currently has 17 active cases of COVID-19

Crystal Schick/Yukon News file
Ranj Pillai, minister of economic development, during a press conference on April 1.
Government rejects ATAC mining road proposal north of Keno City

Concerns from the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun were cited as the main reason for the decision


Wyatt’s World for Dec. 2, 2020

The new Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation council elected Dec. 1. (Submitted)
Little Salmon Carmacks elects new chief, council

Nicole Tom elected chief of Little Salmon Carcmacks First Nation

Submitted/Yukon News file
Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to the unsolved homicide of Allan Donald Waugh, 69, who was found deceased in his house on May 30, 2014.
Yukon RCMP investigating unsolved Allan Waugh homicide

Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to an unsolved… Continue reading

A jogger runs along Millenium Trail as the sun rises over the trees around 11 a.m. in Whitehorse on Dec. 12, 2018. The City of Whitehorse could soon have a new trail plan in place to serve as a guide in managing the more than 233 kilometres of trails the city manages. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2020 trail plan comes forward

Policies and bylaws would look at e-mobility devices

Snow-making machines are pushed and pulled uphill at Mount Sima in 2015. The ski hill will be converting snow-making to electric power with more than $5 million in funding from the territorial and federal governments. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Mount Sima funded to cut diesel reliance

Mount Sima ski hill is converting its snowmaking to electric power with… Continue reading

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Most Read