This past week, I somehow stumbled into the reflected glare of the spotlight being trained on Northwestel because of the three internet failures it had suffered in the course of two weeks.
CBC asked me to stop by for a short interview abut the problems of internet connectivity in the North, which I did; then a reporter from the Yukon News followed up with a telephone interview, which resulted in my being quoted saying some critical things about the cost and reliability of internet in the territory.
I got all this attention not because of my puckish good looks, but because I have a long history with the development of internet in the Yukon – though I did not, as some news people seem to think, single-handedly haul the first internet router over the Chilkoot Pass in a snowstorm.
I was a member of a quite sizable group of computer-nerd volunteers back in the early ‘90s who somehow managed to finagle enough money and credibility to get an internet node running in Whitehorse in January of 1995.
And one of the key agencies that gave us some of that money and credibility, by the way, was Northwestel – a fact for which they are not given enough credit.
My basic points in both interviews were the same: first, that blaming Northwestel for the recent outages is unfair, since the breaks in the fibre cables did not happen on their network, but on the network of the service supplier they buy their connectivity from; second, their innocence in this matter does not mean that their service is not overpriced and unreliable, because it is both.
On the unreliability front, though, we frankly have to cut Big Green some slack.
With all the burgeoning luxury condominiums, and super-trendy twenty-somethings in their super-trendy coffee shops, it is too easy for Yukoners – and, more particularly, Whitehorsers – to forget that we are still really living on a frontier, many miles removed from the dense populations and plethora of goods and services that exist in the big cities.
Fibre-optic cable costs a lot of money, and it is very vulnerable to breakage, and laying miles and miles of it through radical terrain like the Yukon’s is and expensive and hazardous undertaking.
It is certainly very much a concern that the communications infrastructure we have come to rely on so heavily is literally so thin on the ground; but it is also just a fact of life, in a region that is so sparsely populated and expensive to serve.
On the other hand, that connectivity does exist, and there is no shortage of bandwidth in the Yukon, barring the occational interference of some under-brained backhoe operator.
What is lacking is not bandwidth, but affordable bandwidth.
Put bluntly, Northwestel is just plain charging too much, to domestic consumers, businesses and the government, for bandwidth it has plenty of but prefers to treat as a rare commodity.
I am not privy to the service agreements Northwestel has with its downstream service providers, and what costs it pays for those services, but the fact is evident that it is a very profitable corporation.
There is precisely nothing wrong with Northwestel making a healthy profit; that is what it is obliged to do for its shareholders.
What is wrong with the picture is not that Northwestel is making money; it is that it is making too much of that money from its unregulated digital communications services, and that excessive profitability is having a serious negative impact on the Yukon’s economic and social development.
I am not at liberty to give numbers, but I know for a fact that Yukon College, even with its access to the subsidized bandwidth of the CANARIE research network, is groaning under the weight of bandwidth costs; and the Yukon government, I am told, is under even heavier load, as its bandwidth requirements and costs continue to grow exponentially. Meanwhile, the home consumer, whether using DSL or cable service, is generally paying about twice the price for about half as much bandwidth available to southern consumers.
The current situation is already very close to untenable, and it is fated to get even worse, as more and more users switch to “cloud computing” services on their iPods and smart phones – services which depend upon bandwidth that is plentiful, reliable and affordable.
If that kind of service is unavailable or unaffordable in the Yukon, we are going to be at a social and economic disadvantage compared to other jurisdictions.
What is needed in the current situation, then, is not just caterwauling and name-calling directed at Northwestel; we need a co-operative plan of action that allows Northwestel to fulfil its obligations to its shareholders, while also allowing Yukoners to prosper and learn.
Perhaps the need for a second fibre-optic line out of the territory can serve as a starting point for addressing the problem of internet pricing, too: If the territory is going to invest public money into helping Northwestel secure the reliability of its bandwidth, it is only fair that Northwestel undertake to reduce its bandwidth charges to a point that allows the public and business and government to buy the amount they need.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.