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Economy
Yellowknife

Northwestel plans new fibre line under lake, unlimited data plans


Northwestel is proposing a new, $25-million fibre line under Great Slave Lake after a summer of vandalism to the current line running beside Highway 3.

Presenting to Yellowknife's mayor and council on Monday, the company's vice president of business markets, Paul Gillard, said the company is willing to commit $5.5 million to the project.

The company said it is also working to introduce unlimited data packages to the city in the near future. A proposal to make that happen has been filed with the federal regulator.

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Meanwhile, security patrols and security cameras have been put in place along the existing line to deter vandals.

We have installed a few surveillance cameras running up and down the fibre line. We're paying for some private security to actually patrol it.

PAUL GILLARD, NORTHWESTEL

The majority of Monday's presentation focused on Northwestel's vision of a new, underwater fibre line.

Northwestel hopes to split an estimated initial $3-million startup cost with the territorial government then spend in the region of $4 million on the project's second phase, Gillard suggested. The company wants to team up with the NWT government to approach Ottawa for the remainder of the cash.

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Gillard said conversations with the territory had begun but were on hold during the territorial election.

"I mean, if the GNWT wants to contribute, of course, they're welcome to contribute," Gillard said. "But the financial realities with the territory being what they are, I don't think that's pragmatic."

Gillard said he is "very confident" of receiving federal funding regardless of the outcome of the October 21 federal election.

Later on Monday afternoon, a separate Northwestel spokesperson played down the likelihood of the project proceeding in the near future, saying the underwater line remained "at the ideas stage."

Under-the-lake loop

Yellowknife is currently served by a fibre line which runs parallel to Highway 3 from Fort Providence upward. Below that point there is redundancy, meaning that when a cut to the line happens, data can be fed another way and a total outage is avoided.

However, on the final stretch from Fort Providence to Yellowknife, there is only one line. While the line usually suffers one cut per year, Gillard said, this summer saw two long interruptions due to vandalism still being investigated by the RCMP.

The new fibre line would run from Fort Resolution to Dettah along the bottom of Great Slave Lake. This would connect in turn to a line from Fort Resolution through to Fort Smith, Hay River, and Fort Providence – creating a much more resilient loop up to Yellowknife.

Gillard said Fort Resolution, Fort Smith, and Hay River would also benefit from the work.

Initial work on the new fibre line would involve geotechnical surveys and a bathymetric survey, mapping the lake bottom and checking the depth.

Conversations with Indigenous governments and permitting would need to take place at the same time, Gillard said. He proposed "going halvesies" with the NWT government on work to get the project shovel-ready. While the Taltson hydro expansion project proposes to run a cable under the lake, Gillard rejected the idea of waiting for this, preferring instead for Northwestel to go ahead and lay its own line.

In response to a question from Councillor Steve Payne, Gillard said customers would not see price increases as a result of building the redundant loop. Gillard said this was one reason why Northwestel was proposing to pay for only part of the work.

"If we thought there was an appetite for customers to pay, then yeah, we would make a business case to spend the entire $25 million," he told councillors, "but I know that's not the case. People already pay too much for their internet."

Security patrols

Speaking with Cabin Radio earlier on Monday, Mayor Rebecca Alty said redundancy, speed, and data caps are all critical.

"It really puts a standstill on our whole economy when [the fibre line] goes down," she said of the summer's outages.

Gillard acknowledged small businesses were particularly impacted by the outages, one of which happened during the annual Folk on the Rocks music festival.

In the short term, he said, some efforts have been made to avoid outages. However, he said those were only stopgap measures.

"We have raised what we call slack loops, which are areas where the fibre dips a little bit lower. We have installed a few surveillance cameras running up and down the fibre line. We're paying for some private security to actually patrol it," Gillard said.

"As many times as a security guard goes up and down that road, that's not going to protect you from forest fires. It's not going to protect you from a lightning strike and so on. There are still risks to that non-redundant asset as long as it is, in fact, not redundant."

In the medium term, radios are being installed that could bring functionality during a fibre outage from just one or two percent of Yellowknife's normal bandwidth up to six percent.

"That might be barely enough to get through point-of-sale transactions" and is still not a solution, Gillard said.

If the Great Slave Lake project goes ahead, Northwestel expects to own the fibre line once it is completed. The company also expects to be responsible for its upkeep "in perpetuity."

"[Northwestel] is only spending 25 percent of the upfront cost to build the asset [and is] accepting the responsibility to maintain and refresh that asset into perpetuity, which probably has a monetary value significantly higher than the five-and-a-half [million]," Gillard said.

Unlimited broadband via the feds?

Gillard also presented plans to supply Yellowknife with unlimited broadband packages through funding from federal regulator the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) – suggesting this would only take days to activate if the proposal is accepted.

The plan would allow the company to provide 50 megabytes per second download and 10 megabytes per second upload speeds, working toward a federal commitment to close the "digital divide" in Canada.

"50 and 10 with an option for unlimited in every community in the Northwest Territories. That's going to be meaningful for a lot of people," Gillard said.

The company submitted an unlimited broadband proposal to the CRTC on October 3. Details of the proposal can't yet be shared, Gillard said, but he hinted at the ask being in the tens of millions of dollars and Northwestel kicking in "a significant amount" of funding.

The unlimited option is "looking like a $50 add-on" Gillard said, from a customer's perspective, although the company hasn't finalized its pricing.

Councillor Niels Konge said Northwestel should be able to close the gap in cost between southern Canada and the NWT to a much greater degree than the company is proposing.

"Thirty to 40 percent more than everywhere else? I actually don't think that's a very good target in terms of cost of living in Yellowknife," Konge said.

Gillard said Yellowknife could see unlimited internet packages within days of the company's CRTC application being accepted.

"It's just a question of getting the regulatory tech ticks in the boxes and away you go," he said.

Councillor Robin Williams expressed his support for the application, stressing the importance of upload speeds for economic development in the region.

"There have been a couple of instances where large conferences and such were going to happen in Yellowknife, but were unable to because our upload infrastructure wasn't up to scratch," he said.

Northwestel said details about its CRTC application will be shared with the public this week.

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