Government Powerless to Limit Economic Damage

The sordid details of last week’s telecommunications breakdown are well known, so I won’t bore you with their goriness.

Suffice to say the Yukon was dead in the water for a day, not only from a telecommunications perspective but, more importantly, from an economic perspective.

Offices and businesses were unable to work. Stores were unable to sell. Money just stopped moving in the Yukon, or worse, it turned to smoke as thousands of workers sat idly by waiting for the problem to be resolved.

In short, there were significant economic losses for the Yukon. There’s no official estimate. But I think it’s safe to hazard a guess in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

And our government couldn’t do anything about it, other than sit around like the rest of us and wait for it to be fixed.

Now that’s a far cry from what happened when the roads washed out earlier this year. Government road crews took what some describe as heroic actions to fix highways to get traffic — and the economy — moving again.

Telecommunications is every bit as important to our economy as other utilities like roads. Arguably even more so.

But, as we’ve witnessed, our government is powerless to affect its quality, stability, or to assure its continued availability to citizens and businesses.

Instead, the responsbility for telecommunications in the North belongs to just one privately-held company that is the business equivalent of Honduras — a corporate banana republic embedded in the northern economy.

And the key problem with that is accountability. Northwestel doesn’t have to answer to you or I or the Yukon Government.

Northwestel only answers to its corporate master, Bell. And Bell’s stock has only gone up since the Great Yukon Outage of 2012, so there’s very little cause for concern at head office.

Government is accountable to citizens, as demonstrated through a fair and open electoral system.

If the roads hadn’t been fixed quickly and effectively, citizens would speak loudly at election time. If they kept getting washed out, like the internet keeps going down in the Yukon, we would speak louder still.

How can we speak out against the continued failings of a monopoly that is owned and, for all intents and purposes, managed out of Montreal?

We can’t. There is no other internet provider we can take our business to. There is no other phone company we can move our numbers to.

We’re stuck with Northwestel. (And much to the company’s chagrin, it is stuck with some of us — I count myself in that category.)

The next time Northwestel flubs it (and it’ll happen again — I’ve never been wrong about that before) the government will again remain idle as the economy grinds to a halt. That is all it will be able to do.

If I were in government, I’d be wondering if this is acceptable. That, arguably, the CEO of Northwestel holds more power over the economy than the Premier of the Yukon.

Shouldn’t the government feel compelled to insulate the economy from further damage at the hands of a monopoly service provider?

Transportation and telecommunications are both frail but vastly important systems in the Yukon. The government is brave enough to accept responsibility for one. Why does it leave the other to a private business that holds no accountability?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 28, 2012.