Yukon’s 12-hour internet outage added challenges for emergency officials

People line up outside a Whitehorse bank on Wednesday, hoping to get cash from the ATM. A damaged Northwestel fibre line caused a 12-hour internet disruption in Yukon, forcing many businesses to go cash-only. (Maya Lach-Aidelbaum/CBC)

Alaska Highway fibre line damaged Wednesday is Yukon’s only such connection to the South

Yukon emergency officials say a 12-hour disruption to Yukon’s telecommunications system on Wednesday made for a “challenging” day, but they still managed to keep people informed about emergencies.

Internet service across the territory and some of northern B.C. was knocked out at around 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, after what Northwestel calls “significant land erosion” damaged a fibre line connecting Yukon to the South.

That damaged line disrupted banking and business, and caused headaches for communities and residents trying to stay updated on wildfire and flooding conditions, highway closures, and evacuation alerts in effect.

Service was restored by around 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Phone service, including local and long distance calling and 911 service was not affected by the outage.

‘Caused by significant land erosion’

In a statement on Wednesday evening, Northwestel blames the problem on a damaged fibre line in northern B.C., “caused by significant land erosion.”

The company has not offered any more details, including whether the damaged line is in the same area where a major washout — caused by a broken beaver dam — swept away part of the Alaska Highway last week.

Yukon’s internet connection to the outside world relies on a single fibre line along the Alaska Highway. The line has been damaged before, causing similar hours-long disruptions to telecommunications in Yukon and northern B.C. Another roughly 12-hour disruption happened a little over a year ago.

Kat Hallett, with Yukon’s Protective Services division, said Wednesday’s disruption made it a little more difficult for emergency officials to keep people updated on the territory’s wildfires and evacuation alerts. Dozens of new fires have been sparked by lightning in recent days and there were 136 active fires in Yukon as of Wednesday. Several communities are under evacuation alerts, and some highways are closed.

“We did have a challenging day yesterday,” Hallett said.

She says emergency officials have a “huge toolbox” when it comes to communications, but in recent years they’ve come to use social media more and more to keep people informed about emergencies.

“That’s a really great tool when it’s working. But when it’s not working, we do kind of have to pivot and fall back on some of the other methods that we do still use on a regular basis,” she said.

On Wednesday, that often meant going on local radio with fire updates and survival information.

Mike Fancie, a Yukon wildland fire information officer, also said fire officials typically rely on the internet “a lot.”

“It saves us from answering every single individual question by phone,” he said.

Dempster line to help switch communications ‘seamlessly’

“The situation yesterday really highlights how vulnerable we are as a territory to outages,” said Priyank Thatte, director of sustainable infrastructure with Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works, on Thursday morning.

Work is still underway on a new, $70-million, 800-kilometre fibre optic line between Dawson City, Yukon, and Inuvik, N.W.T. That line will connect to an existing line that already connects Inuvik to the South.

The Dempster line will therefore serve as a backup so that service disruptions like Wednesday’s “are no longer a thing,” Thatte said. Once the Dempster line is operational, communications can switch “seamlessly” if the Alaska Highway fibre line is damaged.

“[We’ll] have more reliable internet and cell phone service, something that people in the South take for granted because there are multiple redundant lines there,” he said.

Construction on the Dempster line began last year and it’s expected to be complete by 2024.

Thatte says Wednesday’s outage “reinforced the importance for this project once again for Yukoners.”

With files from Elyn Jones and Anna Desmarais

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: $123.9 million additional funding announced for high-speed internet in Arctic Quebec, Eye on the Arctic

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

United States: Fibre optic network to connect Alaska with rest of United States, Alaska Public Media

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