Optic fibre cable in Arctic Canada was cut in ‘rare’ weekend telecom outage, says Northwestel

This temporary emergency fibre optic cable lays on the ground along Highway 3, following a widespread telecommunications outage on Saturday. (Kate Kyle/CBC)
Northwestel says a major communications disruption in the Yellowknife area, northwestern Canada, over the weekend resulted from a severed fibre optic cable — an incident the RCMP believes was “senseless vandalism.”

The outage on Saturday lasted roughly 10 hours, impacting long distance calls, cell phones, TV and Internet services. The communities of Whati and Behchoko were also affected.

“There was a cut to the fibre and that cut obviously had a pretty tremendous impact on telecommunications for Yellowknife and surrounding communities,” said Andrew Anderson, spokesperson for Northwestel.

“It’s a really unfortunate incident … We apologize for that.”

‘A criminal act’: RCMP

RCMP say they believe “a criminal act” occurred around 7 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. Saturday near Highway 3 involving the single fibre optic cable running from Fort Providence to Yellowknife. Police did not specify the details of the act.

“This senseless vandalism had far-reaching implications which affected the safety and comfort of the majority of N.W.T. residents,” RCMP said in a new release Tuesday afternoon.

In an email to CBC, RCMP spokesperson Julie Plourde said while no one has been charged yet, possible charges can include mischief endangering life, mischief exceeding $5,000, and common nuisance.

I have not been that stressed at a wedding since my own!

Sarah Kalnay-Watson, Yellowknife wedding planner and florist

Northwestel says the majority of the line is buried in the ground, though sections are slung “out of reach” along electrical poles, over sporadic bedrock.

Northwestel would not give specifics of how or where exactly the line was damaged.

But Anderson did call this kind of incident relatively “rare” and “tremendously unfortunate.” In the past, he says the company has seen evidence of damage to fibre optic cable infrastructure in several ways, including being shot at.

A single fibre optic cable runs from Fort Providence, N.W.T., to Yellowknife. Northwestel says all permanent fibre cables are installed using ‘rigorous constructions standards,’ primarily buried or installed on electrical pole lines. (Kate Kyle/CBC)
Wedding planner calls for better backup

A least one Yellowknife business owner is calling for better backup for when a fibre line goes down.

Sarah Kalnay-Watson, a wedding planner and florist, says she rarely panics on wedding day. On Saturday she had two weddings.

“I have not been that stressed at a wedding since my own!” said Kalnay-Watson.

“Nobody is responding to any text messages because no one is receiving them,” she said about trying to connect with caterers and other contractors.

‘Nobody is responding to any text messages because no one is receiving them,’ said Sarah Kalnay-Watson, a Yellowknife wedding planner and florist who juggled two weddings the day the fibre line was cut. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Luckily, Kalnay-Watson had a “feeling” she should print off some of those plans days before.

“Having those printouts saved my skin,” she said.

She’d like to see a better backup plan.

“We have quite a small economy in the North and if we are being affected that much just by the internet going down, it can be quite frustrating.”

Northwestel says a majority of the fibre optic cable running into the Northwest Territories is protected by a redundant loop, or a secondary fibre path, although there is no redundant line to Yellowknife.

The secondary fibre path runs up from northern Alberta to Fort Providence, N.W.T., down the Liard Highway into northern British Columbia.

Disruptions are usually caused by environmental factors, like landslides or even construction.

The future Canada North Fibre Loop that will run along the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, will add further support, the company says.

Northwestel wouldn’t elaborate on its security measures for protecting its infrastructure but did say it has “systems in place” to secure its infrastructure and repair it quickly when it does go down.

The company is now looking at ways to compensate customers affected by Saturday’s break in service, but could not provide information on how or when it would do that.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Community in Arctic Canada frustrated by months-long internet and cell service issues, CBC News

Finland: Major step towards a Europe-Asia Arctic cable link, Yle News

Norway: New satellites to boost communications in Arctic Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russian military to get fast, secure internet through trans-Arctic cable, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Northern Sweden to host more Facebook servers, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska’s first wireless 5G network to be built in Anchorage, Alaska Public Media

Kate Kyle, CBC News

Kate Kyle, CBC News

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