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Out of the Loop

Out of the Loop

The odd timing of the Yukon's fibre line announcement
By Herb Mathisen
Oct 27

Call me surprised by today’s splashy fibre news. The Yukon government appears prepared to build a fibre optic line from Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, NWT, to complete a loop to guard the Yukon—and much of the western NWT—against the very real dangers of a fibre line cut.

In essence, this project would give many Northern Internet users redundancy. What does that mean? Well, remember last month when a fibre line cut near Watson Lake ground Internet service to a halt across the Yukon? Businesses in Whitehorse shut down because their point-of-sale systems became inoperable. Telecommunications to the NWT’s Beaufort Delta and even to satellite-serviced communities in Nunavut were affected, with long distance phone and Internet cutting out. (And it wasn’t the first time this happened.) All because one fibre line—the one route in and out of the Yukon—was severed.

What this new line would do is provide alternate routing if a line is cut. A loop would allow the signal to travel the other way—with an imperceptible loss of speed—if a severance occurred. Take the Whitehorse gamer: if there was a fibre cut north of Fort Nelson, B.C., the signal would reroute up the Mackenzie Valley fibre line (currently under construction), across the (theoretical) Dempster line and through to your (very real) Playstation 4.

The Yukon government said today this new line could be completed by 2017, and it’s a definitive move away from another proposed fibre option, which would have tied Whitehorse to Juneau, Alaska via fibre—providing redundancy to the capital, but leaving other communities out.

Why am I surprised by today’s news? Well, the announcement comes at a very odd time. Nearly one-third of this line will run through the Northwest Territories, but there was no mention of the NWT’s support in today press release. And the GNWT is very much a government in transition. The 17th assembly dissolved earlier this month, the writ has dropped and candidates are fanning out across the territory with buttons, placards and promises in the lead up to the November 23 election. (Yes, you read that correctly. Another election.) Basically, the only funds that can get the greenlight right now are for emergency response measures.

Shaun Dean, director of cabinet communications says the GNWT hasn’t made any financial commitments this project yet. “But it is something that is going to be put into transition materials for consideration by the 18th Legislative Assembly,” he adds.

Also absent from the Yukon government’s announcement was any mention of backing from the feds. Consider, again, the transition afoot at the federal level. The timing seems odd, right?

One party that is on board with the Yukon government is Northwestel, the North’s telecom giant. It pegs the line construction costs at roughly $32 million. But when I spoke with the company’s CEO Paul Flaherty last Tuesday—and we spoke at length about this Dempster project—he didn’t sound like someone who knew an announcement was imminent. Though he said he’d discussed the line with GNWT and federal officials, they expected to have a better understanding of whether they could make it happen later this year or early in the New Year, once the two new governments were in place.

So that leaves questions about funding.

“The project is going to be undertaken in partnership with [Northwestel], but the details of how the costs will be broken down has not been determined,” said Yukon cabinet spokesperson Dan Macdonald. He added that the Yukon government and Northwestel would reach out to the GNWT and the feds with “hopes those discussions will happen in the future.” (Macdonald said it was too early to speculate about whether the line was contingent on GNWT and federal support.)

From my talk with Flaherty last week, it appears that Northwestel is asking for help to construct the line and then to ultimately take over ownership afterwards. “What we’ve asked [the governments] to do is to help fund some of the upfront investment and we would fund obviously a significant share of it as well, but then we would take on all the cost of ownership from there on in—replacement, maintenance, everything,” said Flaherty. “We were going to pay a significant part of the upfront. We’re not asking them to just pay it all and give it to us.” Part of this upfront investment is extending a fibre line to Dawson City that currently ends at Stewart Crossing. This could be completed as soon as 2016, he said, but it’s contingent on the Dempster line. (Microwave capacity to Dawson City, Flaherty said, is only at 40 percent capacity, adding there's no urgency to do that extension just yet.)

So while today’s announcement is sure to please some Northern business owners—and it does seem the Yukon government has finally decided upon its preferred option to provide redundancy to its residents—the picture of how this line will be built is still very muddy.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that there were technically no GNWT cabinet members right now. That was incorrect. Cabinet ministers—though not currently MLAs—still hold their ministerial positions, but are acting in more of a custodial role. And no, that doesn't mean they're sweeping up after the 17th Assembly.