Phone gremlins elude Northwestel

Northwestel is still searching for answers as to what caused a service disruption that halted credit and debit card use across the territory and brought internet service to a crawl for five hours on Friday.

Northwestel is still searching for answers as to what caused a service disruption that halted credit and debit card use across the territory and brought internet service to a crawl for five hours on Friday.

By Saturday, the company’s technicians thought they had patched the problem, only to encounter a new one: cellphones were able to connect to other cellphones, but not land lines.

A faulty router within the electronic guts of Northwestel’s base of operations is suspected as the culprit, but a full investigation into the problems continues, said spokesperson Anne Kennedy on Tuesday.

The company suffered four service failures in 10 days, and customers are understandably becoming cranky.

But the first two disruptions, on June 10 and June 17, appear to have been beyond the company’s control.

On June 10, a backhoe operator working near the McClintock Bridge accidently severed the fibre-optic cable, which transmits much of the territory’s internet traffic.

For five and a half hours, Yukon’s debit and credit card readers wouldn’t work, internet service ground to a halt, and cellphone service was disrupted across Canada’s three territories.

This system crash was made worse by bad timing. Usually Northwest has a back-up system in place along this stretch, in which phone calls and internet traffic are transmitted by digital microwave signals.

But one of their microwave towers in northern British Columbia had been temporarily shut-off because a wildlife raged nearby, making the fibre-optic line all the more important.

“That was pretty disastrous. We had no back-up,” said Kennedy.

A similar disruption occurred a week later, on June 17, when a fibre-optic line was cut during a forest fire between Coal River and Liard River, BC.

But if it’s any consolation to fed-up customers, the internet is about to become faster, after the company finishes laying the last, 250-kilometre stretch of fibre-optic cable to connect the territory to southern Canada.

Currently the gap between Dawson Creek and southern Yukon is bridged by beaming information by microwave tower. But this older technology is much slower and capable of transmitting less information at once than the fibre-optic pipeline being laid.

The newly laid cable should remove a bottleneck in Yukon’s information highway. The difference in service should be comparable to that of “a four-lane highway versus a two-lane road,” said Kennedy.

But the terrain along the stretch of the Alaska Highway in question is mountainous and rocky. And this means completing the final stretch of fibre-optic line isn’t cheap.

The work, which started last year and should be complete by August, is expected to cost the company $15 million.

The company is promising to unveil new packages and pricing later this summer.

“We’re really excited about it. But right now I can’t share any more details with you,” said Kennedy.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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