NorthwesTel emphasizes Internet speed advances

NorthwesTel is welcoming the Yukon government's recently announced plan to look at bringing a second fibre-optic line to the territory.

NorthwesTel is welcoming the Yukon government’s recently announced plan to look at bringing a second fibre-optic line to the territory.

It’s actually something that the telco has been lobbying for quite some time, said Paul Flaherty, the president of NorthwesTel.

“This is something we’ve been perusing, I think, probably since 2008 or 2009, so we’re pleased to see the government recognizes it as a priority,” he said “They’re singing from the same page we’ve been singing from since that time.”

In a speech to the Yukon Chamber of Commerce last week, Currie Dixon, the minister of economic development, announced the government’s plans to look at improving territorial Internet services.

He presented two government-commissioned reports that spoke to the need for the territory to bolster its telecommunications infrastructure.

The first task of a soon-to-be-created government directorate will be to look at the feasibility of laying a second fibre-optic cable from Whitehorse through Skagway and on to Juneau, said Dixon.

With only one fibre-optic link to the south, the Yukon’s Internet connections suffer from low speeds and high costs, and are vulnerable to service disruptions, he said.

The government hopes that a redundant fibre-optic line will go a long way to solve those problems.

Flaherty doesn’t dispute that, but pointed out that things have already improved quite a bit since these reports were written.

“Two years ago, we spent $10 million on the Laird Highway to create a ring to protect us against all the fibre cuts we were getting in the south in places like Fort Nelson and High Level, Alberta,” he said.

That has helped, said Flaherty. The territory did see a phone and Internet disruption last summer, but that was the result of a territorial blackout that caused an equipment failure when the power came back on.

The speed of the network has also improved significantly from the numbers that were cited in the reports.

They put the Yukon’s average speed Internet at 7.7 megabytes per second, but that was in April 2011.

According to, the Yukon’s Internet is running an average speed of 19.13 Mbps today – the fastest of any province or territory in the country.

It’s constantly in the top three in terms of downloads and near the middle of the pack in terms of upload speeds, said Flaherty,

“You can see the progression, and I’m glad, because we’ve been working a lot to make a difference and it’s nice to see that change is happening,” he said.

NorthwesTel also recently dropped its overage rates for the second time in as many years.

It’s now $5 for every gigabyte used over a customer’s monthly limit, down from $10 a gigabyte a year and a half ago.

However, even with that change the Yukon still has some of the most expensive rates for Internet service in the country.

More competition would change that, but NorthwesTel’s wholesale rates will have to come down first, notes the reports.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is currently reviewing those wholesale rates, but has yet to make a final decision.

Building Internet capacity doesn’t come cheap.

NorthwesTel spent $60 million to construct its fibre-optic line to the south.

The Yukon government gave the telco about $300,000 to do some of the design work on the final leg of the connection, but NorthwesTel didn’t receive any subsidies to put in the fibre-optic line, said Flaherty.

Although NorthwesTel does receive a subsidy of a little more than $20 million a year from a fund administered by the CRTC, that money is for providing basic land-line phone service, which includes dial-up Internet but not broadband.

The CRTC has so far shied away from regulating high-speed Internet, although it did set a voluntary 5 Mbps goal for the country a few years ago.

But the Yukon should be pushing for at least 100 Mbps in Whitehorse and 30 Mbps in the communities, recommended the government’s report.

NorthwesTel’s recently released modernization plan, which will double and, in some cases, triple territorial Internet speeds, will get the Yukon close to that goal, but it will need help from the government to get all the way there, said Flaherty.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the government and the telco teamed up.

In the early 2000s the government spent millions of dollars to connect rural Yukon to high-speed Internet.

The territory paid for 70 per cent of the project’s capital costs, while NorthwesTel picked up the tab for the rest, as well as the cost to operate and maintain the infrastructure.

It’s too soon to say exactly how the new fibre-optic link will be paid for, or even if it will be built at all, but both industry and the government are saying that more needs to be done.

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