A recent federal government report concluded that the telecommunications infrastructure in the North is in a bad, bad way.
That system that supports our internet and mobile and landline phones is poorly designed and implemented, undependable, expensive, and slow.
As a result, not only is our access to Netflix threatened, but government services are negatively impacted and emergency situations – such as plane crashes – are more dangerous than they need be.
Unsurprisingly, the report recommends that since private companies like Northwestel have proven themselves unable to effectively and affordably accommodate the growing communications needs of northerners, it’s time for government to get involved.
What a perfect message for election time!
So, how are Yukon’s political parties proposing to resolve the North’s internet problem if we put them in office?
Based on the information they’ve released to date, they aren’t.
But let’s look at the state of affairs before we delve too deeply into the dearth of election promises.
The report I’m referring to was published earlier this year by the Northern Communications & Information Systems Working Group, an agency of the Canadian Forces’ Arctic Security Working Group.
The report is titled, “A Matter of Survival: Arctic Communications Infrastructure in the 21st Century”. It’s generally referred to as ACIA.
The report was heavily referenced in a recent Globe and Mail article that quoted a military representative describing the North’s infrastructure as “fragile”.
Maj. Tom Bachelder says, “Communications ties in to safety and security. It also ties in to sovereignty.”
The failures that regularly and repeatedly occur in the northern network represent not only inconveniences, but dangers.
Bachelder highlighted problems experienced during the recent plane crash in Resolute, when it was difficult to get necessary information in and out of the community.
The report cites a number of situations in which government services fail or are made more difficult because of the poor infrastructure.
As for the Yukon in general, the ACIA report describes our pain like so:
“In Whitehorse … repeated cuts to the only fiber connection connecting it to the Internet ground the modern city to a halt, drastically affecting their local economy, and causing outages and slow downs to all the communities feeding into Whitehorse.”
So what does the ACIA report recommend to bring our infrastructure up to snuff?
Only the same things that I and many of like mind have been talking about for years.
Like a strategy.
The North’s telecommunications infrastructure is the technical equivalent of a shack in a Jim Robb painting.
The Yukon Government needs to collaborate with governments in NWT and Nunavut to plan and implement a comprehensive, long-term local and pan-northern telecommunications strategy.
And then there’s geographic redundancy.
The Yukon, for one, desperately needs at least one more big pipe connecting us to the internet that doesn’t go down the Alaska Highway or pass through that backhoe-happy community called Fort Nelson.
Yukon’s smaller communities also each need redundancy, so that if their connections to Whitehorse fail, they have a fallback.
And all connections need significantly improved data thresholds. This is, after all, the age of digital video.
Finally, pricing. It needs to go down. Way down.
The ACIA report highlights the lack of “parity” between the services that northerners receive and that which folks down south get. And a lot of that disparity revolves around price.
That applies not just to consumers, but businesses and governments, too.
Finally, funding. Northwestel can’t do it alone. No private business could. The challenges in the North are insurmountable for any one company, especially when that company needs to send a profit home to its parent.
The government has to step up with money and other resources. And it’s got to be ready to lobby the federal government for money and support, too.
As the Globe article says, and as I’ve written before, the governments of other major nations are investing in the telecommunications infrastructure in their remote regions. Australia is spending billions, the US and UK tens of millions.
So here we are in an election: what are the Yukon’s politicians promising to do about the well-recognized and documented communications problem?
I browsed the web sites and Facebook pages of the three major political parties and only managed to find one sentence about this issue: “…internet and phone reliability are fundamentally important to our connection to the world and the global economy.”
That was from the Liberal Party’s Takhini-Kopper King Candidate, Cherish Clarke.
(Disclosure: the Liberal Party is one of my clients.)
It’s a great, if wanting start.
But it’s early in the campaign. I’m hopeful that she and other candidates will expand upon the issue with a cohesive, focused plan. After all, this is a core infrastructure concern that will either enable or make more difficult the delivery of other services that the parties promise to implement.
In the meantime, and in the event that the parties don’t pick up the matter of phone and internet service in the North, we’ve all got plenty of time to hassle them about it.
Ask your local candidate how he or she will work to make our telecommunications infrastructure, particularly the internet, more stable, reliable, faster, and cheaper. Make sure you vote for a candidate whose party presents a solid plan for implementing the promises.
Or just prepare for another four years of slow speeds, service disruptions, and big bills. Your choice.
Originally published in the Yukon News on September 16, 2011.