Northwestel’s Triumph is a Heavy Burden to Bear

Imagine, if you will, a long string of interwoven glass threads stretching across the landscape for hundreds of kilometres.

It winds through almost impassable mountain landscapes, carves through provincial parks under roadway pavement, and bounds through the air over poles amongst the pine trees.

It crackles inside with the red light of a laser beam: an optical depiction of a massive volume of voices, movies, pictures and credit card purchases. That beam bounces from wall to wall of the glass threads with a speed that can only be surpassed in the vacuum of outer space.

This is Northwestel’s latest triumph, the final piece of a fibre optics puzzle that at last launches the Yukon Territory into the modern telecommunication age.

320 new kilometres of silica-based string that cost the company $14 million and took 3 years of hard work.

In other words, the Yukon finally has a big, fat pipe to the global internet. The bad old days of a microwave-based country lane are done.

So Alaska Highway be damned, we’re in real touch with the outside world and ready for the future up here.

Despite the space-age technological achievement, Northwestel’s spiffy new network is actually based on centuries-old scientific ideas and materials.

Fibre optics, for example, are born of a simple theory of light reflection: that when a beam hits a surface at a specific angle, that beam in its entirety will bounce back again.

The concept was first tested in the early 1800s when scientists managed to prevent light from escaping water by bouncing it off the surface.

Fibre optics is an advanced application of this simple phenomenon. A beam of light bounces back and forth inside a glass thread. It’s unable to escape because it always hits the inner surface of the thread at the same angle.

But this phenomenon – called total internal reflection – wasn’t actually even considered as a method of telecommunications until the 1960s. That’s when a Japanese scientist invented several devices that made such an application possible.

Of course, fibre optics went on to drive the dot-com bubble as the best way to make the internet bad in a good way.

Then there’s the stuff the light bounces around inside. This material has been recognized as useful for millennia.

Silica is the second-most plentiful substance on earth (after oxygen).

I was at the beach in Vancouver last week and it was all around me, as sand.

The Yukon is literally encased in it, with its quartzy geography.

We eat silica, we brush our teeth with it, we drive around on it in our tires. We toast our successes with it in wine, we walk on it in our sidewalks. And we look through it every day as windows.

Its hardness as a material for tools has been recognized since antiquity.

So, you see, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the Yukon has crested the wave of the 21st Century riding a surfboard crafted from age-old knowledge and ancient materials.

And when Northwestel flips the switch on the new network in a few short days (it goes live September 1) we’ll all instantly enjoy the benefits that fibre optics offers.

Access to the internet will get faster. And the volume of data that we can transmit and receive will increase prolifically.

Because that’s the best quality of a fibre optic network: it can carry massive amounts of data at the speed of light (well, almost).

Of course, as we all get markedly better internet service, Northwestel’s new fibre link becomes a great weight for the company to carry.

Up until now, the company could blame its paltry internet service on the limitations of a decrepit microwave network.

No more.

With a big, fat fibre network, Northwestel can do whatever it wants.

Because along with the fibre network Northwestel got some new management technologies that put full control of the Yukon’s internet right in Northwestel’s hand.

If the company wants us to receive better access to the internet, it turns the faucet on. If it wants us to suffer a poverty of data, it just stems the flow.

So as great as the new fibre link is, there is no formal system of accountability for Northwestel’s conduct regarding its line south.

No regulatory body oversees the manner in which Northwestel dispenses access to the internet.

Yet we all recognize how essential the internet has become to a contemporary lifestyle.

We can only hope that Northwestel recognizes its new kinship with Spider-Man who famously recognized that, “with great power comes great responsibility.’’

Otherwise there’s gonna be a heck of a lot of Doc Ocks and Green Goblins running around in the North.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 27, 2009.