To deter vandals, Northwestel plans more fibre line security

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Northwestel says the lone fibre line from Fort Providence to Yellowknife will receive extra security measures in a bid to stop vandals cutting it.

At least twice in 2019 the line has been cut by vandals, disrupting North Slave residents' access to the internet and other services. The latest attack on the line came on Monday, causing a seven-hour outage.

While some residents say a day offline is a "first-world problem," businesses and workers have said the damage done by regular disruption is beginning to impact their operations and the broader NWT economy.

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"This is a problem that must be addressed," Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart said in the legislature on Tuesday.

"It is incredibly difficult to protect individual assets from malicious damage," said Testart, "[but] we must have quality digital infrastructure and uninterrupted connectivity.

"Any form of electronic payment becomes unreliable or impossible. Business and government operations and emergency contact numbers were all affected by this outage."

RCMP spent Monday night and Tuesday morning frantically working to repair their phone systems following the Monday outage. Residents of 11 NWT communities were temporarily told to call Yellowknife instead to report emergencies.

The fibre line is not large – Northwestel describes it as "the width of holding your thumb and forefinger together" – and is usually safely buried. However, the line is exposed in some places between Fort Providence and Yellowknife where the company cannot bury it, such as river crossings or in areas of hard bedrock.

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On Wednesday, Northwestel told Cabin Radio security in some areas would now be bolstered, though it would not specify how. The cost of those measures was not given.

"Northwestel does have security measures in place to protect the infrastructure it operates over thousands of square kilometres, connecting almost 100 communities," spokesperson Andrew Anderson said by email.

"We don’t disclose specifics on those measures. The company is implementing additional measures in certain areas in the aftermath of the acts of vandalism this summer."

'Viable and affordable' redundancy

In the legislature, finance minister Robert C McLeod pledged the NWT government would hold talks with Northwestel and the federal government, among others, regarding ways of avoiding future disruption.

"We have raised concerns about redundancy with the provider, Northwestel, and with [federal telecoms regulator] the CRTC, and we continue to work actively with industry partners to explore viable and affordable redundancy measures," McLeod said, responding to questions from Testart.

"The last three incidents highlight the need for some redundancy. I will ... have those discussions and report back to this House as soon as those discussions happen, before September 2."

September 2 is the date on which the writ will be issued, triggering the NWT election period leading up to polling day on October 1.

At the moment, the only redundancy if something happens to Yellowknife's fibre line is a comparatively low-quality microwave link. That's why occasional packets of data are still able to come and go, providing tantalizing glimpses of the internet, even when the line is cut. However, the microwave link is not nearly strong enough to cope with the usual digital traffic Yellowknife generates.

Elsewhere in the NWT and Yukon, Northwestel – along with territorial and federal governments – has spent millions of dollars putting in additional redundancy.

An ongoing project known as the Canada North Fibre Loop connects the communities between Fort Nelson, BC, and Inuvik in a large circle of fibre line, meaning if there's a cut anywhere along the way, data can still travel in the other direction.

That circle encompasses Whitehorse and Dawson City alongside NWT communities like Fort Simpson, Fort Good Hope, and Norman Wells (though in the legislature on Wednesday, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly questioned whether the fibre line is actually fully connected to those NWT communities). It takes advantage of the NWT's Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link, completed in 2017.

However, Yellowknife sits outside that circle at the end of a lone strand of cable stretching north from the Dehcho.

Anderson told Cabin Radio last month there was no "active project" to provide high-quality redundancy for the Yellowknife strand, adding the cost of an additional line runs to many millions of dollars.

Creating the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link, from Fort Simpson to Inuvik, cost more than $80 million according to the territorial government.

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