Canada’s telecom regulator asks Northwestel to detail outages across the North

This photo, taken on Aug. 12, 2019 from Highway 3 near Yellowknife, shows a sign warning of the fibre optic line overhead. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)
Northwestel has been forced to explain some of the outages northern communities have endured over the last year.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) asked Northwestel to detail outages in the North, following media reports of Yellowknife’s two widespread outages this summer.

Those outages included widespread interruptions to internet, cellphone and long-distance service in and around Yellowknife that “severely stifled local business and services,” according to a letter the CRTC had sent to Northwestel’s vice-president and chief financial operator in August.

The CRTC asked for a list of outages lasting more than four hours since last July, the steps taken to address them, and any security measures the company is planning on implementing to address vandalism to its infrastructure.

In its written response, dated Sept. 16, Northwestel said there have been 40 outages in the North since July 2018, including five considered “major.” Fifteen were in Yukon, nine in the Northwest Territories, 11 in Nunavut, and five in northern British Columbia.

Birchwood Coffee Ko in Yellowknife closed early on Aug. 12 due to a telecommunications outage that affected the city. The outage meant the business was only able to accept cash for purchases. (Emily Blake/CBC)
Major outages in Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Norman Wells

Major outages are categorized as those impacting more than 1,000 people, according to Northwestel, which provides telecommunications services to the three northern territories, along with parts of northern British Columbia and northern Alberta.

Two of the major outages happened in Whitehorse, Yukon: one in December 2018 and another in April of this year. Both were due to equipment failures, the company’s report said.

Two were recorded in Yellowknife: one in May, and one during the Folk on the Rocks music festival in July. A less-publicized outage also took place in Norman Wells, N.W.T., in July.

There was another major outage in Yellowknife in August that wasn’t included in the data provided to the CRTC. That outage lasted nearly 10 hours and caused some businesses to close their doors temporarily.

The Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce has estimated that Yellowknife’s summer outages cost the local economy close to $10 million.

Northwestel combating outages

Many of the details surrounding the outages were redacted for confidentiality and security reasons, Northwestel wrote.

In the Northwest Territories, the outages in May and July were all due to “transport failure” — a disruption to fibre flowing into the community, such as the line being cut, which happened twice in Yellowknife this summer.

RCMP are investigating Yellowknife’s July and August cases as potential acts of vandalism, and are still looking into whether the incidents are connected.

This temporary emergency fibre optic cable lays on the ground along Highway 3, following a recent fibre cut. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Northwestel’s response to the CRTC’s request for security measures to address vandalism was not made public.

However, Northwestel wrote that it already has plans to combat some outage causes, such as extra generators in cases of power outages, noting that “commercial power supplies in northern communities can be very unreliable.”

The company wrote that in cases like this summer’s in Yellowknife, it has mechanisms to help employees quickly find where the disruption is.

The company also pointed to a $79-million project with the federal and territorial governments to develop a 777-kilometre fibre optic transport network along the Dempster Highway. It would connect Dawson City, Yukon, with Inuvik at the end of the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link.

It’s unclear what, if any, steps the CRTC might take with the information provided by Northwestel. CBC has put in a request with the commission.

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

Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi, CBC News

Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi, CBC News

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