Work to repair a fibre line in Yellowknife on November 10, 2023. Photo: Kelley Weatherby
So, what did you do with your Friday afternoon?
If you live in Yellowknife – and a range of other NWT communities – you probably didn’t check your email, scroll mindlessly or watch any live streams.
Virtually all internet was extinguished when the fibre line went down at 1pm, taking most wireless networks and cell data with it. Only the small but growing band of people with other forms of internet access, like Starlink, remained online.
Hopefully you went for a nice walk or played an entertaining family game of crib. Books! Remember books? Maybe you read a book.
If the truth is you listlessly refreshed your phone 4,000 times, you might be wondering: when is Yellowknife ever getting some backup for situations like this?
After all, this is no longer a one-off. We all know the South Slave lost virtually all communications for nearly a week during this summer’s fires, and most Yellowknifers are familiar with earlier, vandalism-related outages that have lasted for up to a day at a time.
The issue is simple. There is one fibre line carrying the internet from the south into Yellowknife, where it stops. If anything happens to the many hundreds of kilometres of that line, much of it slung from poles above ground, the city and some connected communities can drop off the map.
For years, there has been talk of redundancy. If you build a second line to Yellowknife then if one of the two is damaged, the other one can take over.
In late 2021, dominant northern land-based internet provider Northwestel signed a deal with Yellowknives Dene First Nation business wing Det’on Cho Management to build a backup line that would stretch below the surface of Great Slave Lake.
At the time, the companies estimated the line would cost up to $20 million and they hoped to build it in 2023.
That hasn’t happened, and it’s a while since any public update on the proposal was provided. Even in 2021, the companies said they needed around half of the costs to be covered by government funding to go ahead with the work.
The project hasn’t registered a mention in the NWT legislature since the week it was announced, when finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said she was “thrilled” to hear of it and “always happy to know if there’s an opportunity for the government to participate in projects such as this one.”
There is no mention of the Great Slave Lake Fibre project, as it is known, in the NWT government’s latest capital estimates (the money it intends to spend on new infrastructure, like a fibre line). No regulatory permissions appear to have been sought for any construction work to commence.
The last mention of the project appears to be a GNWT submission to the CRTC in April this year, which states in passing that the territory “supports the Great Slave Lake Fibre redundancy project that is critical to maintaining resilient connectivity for 75 percent of the population.”
In other words, it doesn’t look like a second cable is arriving any time soon.
However, the growth of low-Earth orbit satellite services like Starlink is happening at extraordinary pace. Anecdotally, dozens of NWT residents have reported abandoning land-based internet for Starlink in recent months, particularly having witnessed days-long fibre outages during the wildfire crisis.
Northwestel’s recent advertising campaigns have promoted the company’s boots-on-the-ground presence in the North (compared to Starlink, whose Elon Musk-owned parent company SpaceX has yet to respond to a media request from Cabin Radio, never mind open an office in the Northwest Territories).
But Starlink is increasingly a factor in conversations about this problem and, at the same time, something of an existential threat to Northwestel.
Other companies like Telesat and even Amazon are also working on similar satellite internet networks.
So while Starlink currently feels like the only next-generation satellite option for some NWT communities, and there’s no immediate sign of a backup fibre line for Yellowknife, the likelihood is that more low-Earth orbit satellite competition isn’t far away. By the time a backup fibre line does arrive, the number of customers using land-based internet could be declining.