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Government eyes Internet expansion

The Yukon government is looking to build a new fiber optic line from Whitehorse to Juneau.

The Yukon government is looking to build a new fiber optic line from Whitehorse to Juneau.

Yukon’s Minister of Economic Development Currie Dixon said in a speech last week that looking at the feasibility of a fibre optic project would be the first task of a new government directorate for information, communications and technology.

“The high cost and relatively low speed of telecommunications services in Yukon are making local businesses less competitive and are constraining the growth and diversification of the Yukon economy,” said Dixon.

Both the territorial and Alaskan state government are looking at building a hydroelectric plant in Skagway.

The 25-megawatt West Creek hydro project would involve stringing power lines all the way from Whitehorse to Skagway.

“It only makes sense to include telecommunications as well,” said Dixon.

Two reports, one commissioned by the Yukon government and the other done by the Yukon Information Technology and Industry Society along with the Business Development Bank of Canada, recommended that the government take a more active role in the development of the territory’s telecommunications sector.

It’s a call the government plans to heed, said Dixon.

“First of all I should say that I don’t believe that any government, or politician for that matter, has all the answers or the solutions,” he said. “But what is clear is that we could be doing more.”

Both reports provide some sobering statistics about just how far behind the Yukon is in terms of the speed, capacity and price of its network.

Yukoners pay twice as much for Internet service that is half the speed of southern packages, and it’s even worse for the territory’s businesses. They pay eight times what a business in the south pays for high-speed (50 megabytes per second) Internet service, said Dixon.

The Yukon government alone spends about $10 million a year on telecommunications services.

Changes are coming.

According to NorthwesTel’s recently released modernization plan, Internet speeds for most of its customers will be much higher than the five megabyte per second voluntary goal that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission set a few years ago.

But since the government’s report was written there have been a lot of changes, said Paul Flaherty, the president of NorthwesTel.

According to the report, the Yukon’s average Internet speed is 7.7 Mbps, but that was in April 2011.

Today that speed has more than doubled, said Flaherty. And if the modernization plan is approved, those speeds will double again and in some cases triple.

But the territory should be aiming even higher, states the government’s report.

With Internet usage expected to grow by 30 per cent a year, the report urges for the goal to be 100 Mbps in Whitehorse, 30 Mbps in the communities and a four- to five-fold increase in the Yukon’s network backbone capacity.

Such a massive increase wouldn’t come cheap, which is one of the reasons that the CRTC has shied away from mandating high-speed Internet.

It would, however, be a major boon to the Yukon’s economy, adding 2.6 per cent to the Yukon’s per capita gross domestic product, or about $47-million, the report estimates.

Adding another fibre optic line would help increase not only speed and capacity, but reliability as well.

At the moment, NorthwesTel has the only fibre optic line in the territory.

“This reliance on a single path makes the territory more vulnerable to disruptions in services ... and as was demonstrated by the service outage last September, the telecommunications infrastructure in Yukon lacks redundancy in some of its key components,” said Dixon.

Not that he’s picking a fight with NorthwesTel, which is the single largest private employer in the territory.

“We recognize the value of a strong and vibrant northern provider like NorthwesTel, but also have to represent the best interests of the industry and customers,” said Dixon. “To put it simply, I think we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves with redistributing the current pie, but need to focus on how best to grow the pie.”

But just how to do that isn’t clear.

The report offers a number of examples that range from Australia’s wholesale nationalization of its fibre optic infrastructure to public-private partnerships like the one that built Alberta’s SuperNet.

Along with creating the directorate, the Yukon government has committed to bolstering the coffers of the Yukon Information Technology and Industry Society to the tune of $50,000 a year.

Contact Josh Kerr at