Last long weekend, on a whale-watching junket to Skagway and Juneau, I found myself plunged into two days of intense internet deprivation.
Not that I could not get any internet at all, of course – I would probably not have survived to report the event, had that been the case – but what I could get was precious little and pretty shabby.
When my sister and I checked into our downtown Skagway hotel (which, out of kindness, I will allow to remain nameless), I made my habitual enquiry about getting a password for their complementary wireless service.
I have grown so accustomed to the ready availability of Wi-Fi service in hotels that it had not even occurred to me to check my ever-handy little iPod to see if it was picking up any wireless signal.
It came as a shock, then, when the otherwise very friendly and helpful woman at the check-in desk informed me that no Wi-Fi was available on the premises.
Befuddled, I was about to ask if there was Ethernet service in the rooms, when I realized that that would do us no good, either, since we were both using Ethernet-incapable iPods.
The question would have been irrelevant, anyway, since we were told the only internet available was on two computers in a computer room – in other words, public internet ala 1999.
The computers themselves turned out to be a couple of brandless, sluggish home-builts, running a not very well maintained version of the Ubuntu Linux operating system on an internet bandwidth speed I estimated (pretty accurately, as it later turned out) as not much more than 512 Kbps.
They were good enough for checking e-mail and maybe a weather page or two; but, since they both needed a new installation of the Adobe Flash player, and those downloads were not allowed by the operating system, they were pretty much useless for anything else.
A further disturbing development was that none of the bars or restaurants my sister and I visited over the next two days had any public Wi-Fi available, either.
I kept seeing the same wireless network showing up on my iPod all over town, but the locals all told me I had to get a password from somewhere downtown, and that I could not do that on weekends; furthermore, they said, the service was slow and expensive, anyway.
Happily, I was for the most part taken up with un-nerdy activities like fjord cruising, whale watching, and sightseeing, so I could get through the weekend with only a few i-withdrawal cramps; but the situation got me curious about the condition of internet service on this far side of the local border.
Some quick web research when I got back to the comparative internet paradise of Whitehorse dug up some interesting revelations.
First of all, a comparison of internet pricing and bandwidth availability between Yukon communities and communities along the Alaska Panhandle proves out invariably to the advantage of the Yukon – though with some interesting exceptions.
The locally resident internet service provider in Skagway, for instance, is the Alaska Power and Telephone Company. It was their wireless access points I was seeing about town.
It turns out that, had I had the time and technology to hunt down their webpage, I could indeed have signed up for a temporary Wi-Fi service from them, creating an account in conjunction with my credit card.
I could have purchased three days or three GB’s worth of internet (whichever came first) for just $12.95 US – not at all a bad price, really, whatever the speed might be like; and that is a service not on offer by our local telephone company in any Yukon community.
Over all, though, our neighbours along the Panhandle are much more bandwidth challenged than we are, and they pay even higher prices than we do (and ours are already way too high, as I argued in my last column).
The Alaska Power and Telephone Company, for instance, sells internet packages ranging from 64 Kbps for $29.95 to 4 Mbps for $99.95, though the 4 Mbps service is so far only available in Petersburg or Wrangell.
On the phone, I managed to confirm that the top-end bandwidth speed available in Skagway is 1 Mbps for $79.95 a month – less than half the 2.5 Mbps download speed we get from Northwestel’s “DSL Classic” offering, which comes in at $62.95.
(Norhtwestel also has a cable modem offering for $62.95 called just “High Speed,” though they are fey about telling you what your download speeds are – probably because they are much higher than on the same-priced DSL offering.)
On the whole then – and hardly surprisingly, since our local territorial government has been so proactive in ensuring Yukoners have access to reasonable amounts of broadband – we are much better served, at a much better price, than our American cousins on the coast.
On the other hand, the current domestic internet rates – and, even more seriously, business internet rates – are still unconscionably high in the Yukon, considering all the public funding support Northwestel has received in establishing its local broadband network.
Furthermore, it would be nice to see our local telco display some of the entrepreneurship shown by the Alaska Power and Telephone Company, in providing pay-for-use Wi-Fi service, particularly in tourism-active communities like Carcross, Whitehorse and Dawson City.
It would also be nice to see something similar to their $64 Kbps offering, which might be of service to people with lower incomes or lower internet needs.
In short, I learned a lot of things from my whale-watching trip, and only some of it about whales.
What I mostly learned is this: Be it ever so over-priced and unreliable, when it comes to the internet, there is no place like home – at least compared to the neighbours right next door.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.