Yellowknife is often described as a place of great isolation – a tiny community nestled in the heart of a virtually uninhabited wilderness, far from the teeming cities of the south.
However, this week we were reminded once again that our community has a tenuous link to the outside world after the second major disruption to internet in the city in the past month sent businesses and consumers reeling.
Cable, home-phone, internet and LTE services across Yellowknife and the NWT were disrupted Monday. The internet was also down for several hours on July 13, which threw a wrench into Folk on the Rocks festivities.
Vandalism is being blamed for both instances.
The internet is a fantastic technology, when it works. When it doesn’t, it can throw daily life into turmoil, causing much consternation for businesses and residents.
The outage had a ripple affect across the city. At the airport, travellers were unable to check-in using the traditional system and airline staff were filling out boarding information by hand. Debit and credit card users were put of luck and retailers across the city had to rely on cash. Some decided to close altogether.
Anyone will tell you that up here in the North, our internet isn’t the fastest, the cheapest or the most reliable but Northern telecommunications companies have a legal obligation to provide broadband internet, which was declared an essential service by the CRTC in 2016. The government likewise has an obligation to ensure northern communities have reliable internet.
What kind of message is the territory sending to potential investors when the internet can be shut down twice in a month for an entire day?
Last year, the federal government gave Northwestel $4.6 million to expand the territory’s fiber-optic network and fund cheaper service for communities that need to rely on satellites for their connections.
Northwestel is the sole owner of the only fibre-optic network that serves the NWT, so it enjoys a near monopoly and has being charging accordingly.
Other service providers must pay Northwestel for the use of their fibre optic network if they want to sell internet.
This has not been a favourable situation for consumers.
Now it appears that Northwestel’s fibre-optic system is prone to vandalism. The RCMP has a part to play here. Is there a section of the fibre-optic line that runs between Fort Providence and Yellowknife that is particularly vulnerable? How can it be better protected?
But Monday’s internet disruption not just calls for a criminal investigation but a general inquiry into the overall reliability of the territory’s internet system.
MLAs sitting in the legislative assembly should be leading the charge. Candidates in the both the territorial and federal elections taking place in October should make the territory’s internet problems a campaign issue.
The NWT can’t be in a position where any criminal with a shovel and a pair of bolt cutters can shut down our internet.