Backhoe severs information superhighway

One wrong scoop from a backhoe, and thousands of Yukon phone and internet customers were left frustrated on Wednesday afternoon. For five and a half hours, cellphone service across the Yukon was virtually wiped out.

One wrong scoop from a backhoe, and thousands of Yukon phone and internet customers were left frustrated on Wednesday afternoon.

For five and a half hours, cellphone service across the Yukon was virtually wiped out. Mobile users as far away as Eastern Nunavut were affected.

Internet bandwidth was dramatically reduced, as was long-distance calling. Only a handful of long-distance calls ever made it out of the territory.

Across Whitehorse, business owners coped with sluggish or unresponsive credit card and debit systems.

“If you had to do any transactions it was an inconvenience, it was a huge inconvenience,” said Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

Airline passengers reported delays due to poor airport communication.

For the most part, internet services were maintained, albeit at much slower speeds.

With the cable severed, the internet needed to be routed through a pair of high-bandwidth radio towers.

The towers were what originally connected the territory to the internet. Now, they’re mainly used as a backup.

Northwestel quickly dispatched a splicing crew to the McClintock River Bridge, where a backhoe had cut through a fibre-optic cable.

It was the second time in a week that a telecommunications crew had been to the worksite.

Days earlier, Northwestel employees had planted red flags showing highway workers where not to dig.

“There were red flags showing where our cable was and they dug in that area anyway,” said Pumphrey.

“Our cable was clearly identified and was recently located and marked in anticipation of (the bridge construction),” read an official Northwestel release.

“From the story I got from my folks, the operator of the backhoe either wasn’t aware or ignored the flags,” said Pumphrey.

At 12:07 p.m., the ragged end of a fibre-optic cable showed up among the piles of freshly-dug soil.

“The guy should have taken his lunch break, like everybody else,” said a Northwestel employee, feverishly splicing the line back together.

“Or been less of an idiot,” offered one of the highway crew.

The cable is composed of hair-thickness glass fibres bundled into a cord. To be spliced, they need to be painstakingly fused back together without error.

“It takes a while to splice fibre back together because if you do a bad one you’ve got to break it and redo it; it’s got to be perfect,” said Pumphrey.

The backhoe was part of a work crew with Nanaimo-based Helm Installation Ltd. The contractor was completing a $3,494,161 contract to replace and widen the bridge deck.

“I don’t think you need to print the name of the contractor,” said a worker.

“Mistakes happen, you know?”

Last December, a severed fibre-optic cable in the Mediterranean Sea wiped out internet across Egypt.

A similar incident 12 months earlier had stemmed India’s bandwidth by 50 per cent and prompted internet outages all across the Middle East.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com