Territory mum on details about plans to build second fibre link

Whenever the Internet goes down in the Yukon, talk inevitably turns to the territory's utter dependency on a single fibre-optic line to transmit data to the outside world. This week has been no different.

Whenever the Internet goes down in the Yukon, talk inevitably turns to the territory’s utter dependency on a single fibre-optic line to transmit data to the outside world.

This week has been no different. When construction workers near Upper Liard accidentally damaged the only fibre-optic line that runs to the territory on Wednesday, it cut all broadband data, long distance and cellular services across the Yukon. According to Northwestel, which owns the line, the accident also triggered similar outages in the Mackenzie Delta and the N.W.T’s satellite-served communities, and as far afield as Nunavut.

The outage lasted for about five hours, starting at 10 a.m.

During that time, retail businesses had to rely on cash or antiquated credit card imprinters. Any company that depended on online sales would have been out of luck.

Lines formed inside Whitehorse banks. Debit cards and ATMs stopped working. And businesses with telephones that depend on the Internet were unable to make or take calls.

The cable is buried along the highway between six to 12 inches deep, depending on the terrain, said Northwestel spokesperson Adriann Kennedy. “I don’t know that there’s any evidence to bear needing to bury them deeper,” she said.

Shortly after service was restored, Yukon’s premier Darrell Pasloski issued a statement promising a plan “in the coming months” to make things better.

The Yukon has spent years and multiple studies looking at building a second fibre-optic line that could serve as a back-up. But few details are on offer.

Even basic information, like how the government spent $600,000 earmarked last year for studying the matter, was unavailable.

Cabinet spokesperson Elaine Schiman said Pasloski will not be doing interviews on the subject until an official announcement is made. “The statement stands for itself at the moment,” she said.

The Department of Economic Development also refused to comment, referring instead to the premier’s statement.

There are two routes that have been looked at repeatedly for a second line.

One is a link to Alaska. The other would extend the fibre-optic cable up to Inuvik, and connect it to a line that the Northwest Territories government has committed to build on its side.

The Yukon government has always seemed to lean towards the Skagway route. Ideas on how to actually accomplish that have been batted around for years.

In early 2014, a report commissioned by a group of First Nations development corporations suggested the First Nations could use a privately-owned company to run a Whitehorse-Juneau fibre-optic link with connections to Seattle.

The startup costs would be split between a Yukon government grant and the company, Dempster Energy Services. It would cost each side about $12.8 million, the report said, assuming there were also capacity-sharing agreements with Northwestel, and a 10-year commitment from the territory to buy from the new company.

That idea never got off the ground.

Executive director Ron Daub said it just wasn’t feasible from the First Nations’ perspective at the time.

“$12.8 million, the return on investment, the risk and everything else, we had other things going on,” he said.

Though that project didn’t work out, Daub said the group still supports the need for a second line and believes the government is on the right track.

“I think it’s a no-brainer to build it. I think it’s more of a government responsibility to get it done regardless of private industry. For me I’d rather look at the opportunities that it brings as opposed to owning the line,” he said.

The most recent public report on the issue came from Stantec in February 2015. It estimates a new fibre-optic link between Whitehorse and Lena Point, Alaska (near Juneau) can be constructed in one season at an estimated cost of $26 million.

A new Canadian fibre-optic route between Whitehorse and Inuvik would cost $54 million and take two seasons.

The Stantec report recommends that government investigate the feasibility of a private-public partnership to build the Alaska route.

Weeks after the Stantec report was released, Alaska Power & Telephone announced plans to run undersea fibre-optic cable from Juneau to Skagway, which would shorten the distance the Yukon cable would need to travel.

By May in the N.W.T., 430 kilometres of the 1,154-km fibre-optic route that government is planning had been completed.

Klondike MLA Sandy Silver has been a vocal critic of the government’s speed coming up with a solution. He brought the issue up again in the last week of the legislature in late May.

“Both options have their advantages. The Juneau link will likely cost less and could create competition in the Yukon telecommunications market,” he said.

“The Dempster option is likely to be more expensive but would provide much-needed redundancy for communities beyond Whitehorse, which the Skagway route will not do, and it will also be an all-Canadian option.”

During that discussion, Economic Development Minister Stacey Hassard confirmed the two options were both still on the table and had been moved forward to “phase two.”

Much like his boss this week, Hassard told the legislature in May that more planning and analysis would be happening “in the coming months.”

“The project team expects to recommend a procurement option, develop budget estimates and timelines and focus on the development of the YDFL (Yukon diverse fibre link) project business case,” he said.

“Going forward, the project will naturally go through permitting, procurement and construction.”

As for how many months away that is, no one is saying.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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