The federal, NWT and Tłı̨chǫ governments have pledged $11 million to lay a fibre line along the route of the new all-season road to Whatì, giving its residents high-speed internet.
The federal government will provide $8 million, the Tłı̨chǫ Government will contribute $1.5 million, and the territorial government is paying $1.4 million. The three governments said 152 homes in the Tłı̨chǫ community will be connected to the existing fibre line running beside Highway 3.
“This project is a great example of the very positive things that can happen when the Tłı̨chǫ Government works closely with our partners,” said Whatì Chief Alfonz Nitsiza in a statement.
According to the Tłı̨chǫ Government, the community of around 530 people currently has download speeds of 15 mbps and upload speeds of two mbps, well below the federal target of 50 and 10 mbps respectively.
“For those of us living in smaller northern communities, we know first-hand the struggle too many Canadians face when it comes to accessing reliable internet service,” the NWT’s Liberal MP, Michael McLeod, said in a statement. He said the investment – which amounts to more than $20,000 per resident – would help Whatì “bridge the digital divide and … more fully participate in everything the internet has to offer.”
The Tłı̨chǫ Government said faster internet will help students, businesses, the community government, and access to medical and mental telehealth services, in turn reducing the need for travel.
“All of these activities … require reliable and adequate access to internet. This need is even greater given increasing reliance on the internet in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the growing shift to digital modes of communication in all sectors of the economy,” Chief Nitsiza had said in a February letter to the Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board, seeking permitting for the fibre line.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government needs permission from the land and water board to piggyback on the final summer of work to complete the all-season road – to be known as Highway 9 or the Tłı̨chǫ Highway – which is expected to open this fall. Construction on the fibre line would take place at the same time and be complete by November according to documentation filed with the board.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government plans to use the same workforce, equipment, camp facilities and environmental protection measures for both projects.
Chief Nitsiza and NWT finance and industry minister Caroline Wawzonek each said they don’t anticipate any issues with approval for the fibre line as it will cause little additional disturbance.
Installing approximately 115 kilometres of fibre line was initially estimated to cost around $10 million, with the “last mile” distribution system to individual homes and businesses anticipated to cost an extra $2.2 million.
“Tlicho businesses are standing by with skilled workers, experts and equipment ready to mobilize, to bring this project to life,” Nitsiza wrote in February.
Northwestel will own the last mile and will operate and maintain the fibre line. The company said it aims to offer Whatì residents the same packages and prices that are available in Yellowknife.
“We congratulate the Tłı̨chǫ Government for this important fibre announcement that will open up new opportunities for telecommunications in Whatì,” Northwestel president Curtis Shaw said in a statement.
“This fibre connection to the community sets the foundation for improved home and business internet services over the coming years.”
Whatì was the only NWT community not included in Northwestel’s Every Community Project, which aims to improve connectivity in NWT and Yukon communities.
Whatì was excluded from the project because, unlike other communities, it requires fibre-optic cable and – at the time the project launched, before work began on the all-season road – there was no business case for installing that infrastructure.