Resolving the Urban Rural Broadband Divide

  • National Newswatch

Although some progress has been made in Canada with respect to bridging the divide between urban rural broadband services, the pace has been very slow. Most of Canada's fibre network has been built close to the Canada US border and extends east west, leaving the central and northern regions of each of the provinces with either limited or no access to broadband. Northern Canada is even more challenged in terms of broadband access.The issue of the urban rural broadband divide was addressed by a panel during the annual conference of the Canada Council of Public-Private Partnerships in November. Panelists included Nick Phillips, Investment Director, Meridan, Amar Singh, Executive Vice President, Commercial Advisory and Strategy, Infrastructure Ontario, and Priyank Thatté, Executive Director, Sustainable Infrastructure, Highways and Public Works,  Government of Yukon. The panel was chaired by Josh Van Deurzen, Partner, Tory's.During the panel discussion, Priyank Thatté pointed to the Dempster project in the Yukon as an example of a project that will reduce the urban rural broadband divide. The Dempster Fibre Project is an 800-kilometre fibre optic line that follows the Dempster Highway from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Once constructed, the Dempster Fibre Line will be a public asset owned by the Government of Yukon. NorthwesTel will lease and operate the line for a period of 20 years.Communities in the Northwest Territories currently depend on a single fibre optic line which was completed in 2017. The Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link (MVFL) is a project commissioned by the Government of Northwest Territories and built by Northern Lights, a consortium of Ledcor Developments Ltd., including Ledcor Technical Services, subsidiaries of  the Ledcor Group of Companies, and Northwestel. MVFL provides high speed telecommunications to over 10 communities in the region. The route extends from McGill Lake in southern Northwest Territories, 90 km. south of Fort Simpson, to Tuktoyaktuk on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, a distance of approximately 1,270 km. When the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link line goes down, the region is largely cut off from the digital world.Once in Inuvik, the Dempster fibre line will connect to the existing Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link. Together, the new line will complete a 4,000-kilometre network. This network will provide communities along the loop with a backup line in the event of a service disruption and provide more reliable internet and cellphone services. The Dempster link is, therefore, essentially being built as a “redundant network” that can be used if the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link (MVFL) is not in service.Panel participants emphasized that to build such fibre links successfully it is important to clearly define policy objectives, maintain communications with stakeholders, partner with indigenous groups and local municipalities, share data across governments and leverage existing infrastructure.Sustainability is also a major consideration because northern Canada has been more adversely impacted by climate change than any other region of Canada. Project operations minimize environmental impacts by ensuring special consideration for the protection of permafrost. Adaptive cable placement methods will be used to ensure the proper installation for the ground conditions. During the planning stage, the depth of the active layer of permafrost will be measured and then will continually be measured during the construction phase to minimize the risk to the environment.Buy in by indigenous groups is especially important for the Dempster line as eight different indigenous groups live on the route. Buy in means more than merely agreeing to the project. Economic benefits are a major goal for most of the indigenous groups. The Yukon government has stated that more than 20 per cent of the Dempster line contract value will be subcontracted to First Nations businesses.Originally, the Yukon government estimated that the Dempster line would cost $32 million but recent estimates by construction and engineering firm Ledcor indicate that costs will be closer to $80 million. The escalating costs raise the question of who will assume the project risk. This project is supported with an investment of up to $30 million under the Government of Canada's Connect to Innovate (CTI) program. Under CTI, the Government of Canada is investing $585 million by 2023 to higher-speed Internet to over 975 rural communities, including 190 Indigenous communities.The Dempster project will take advantage of existing infrastructure. The majority of the cable will be installed in the right-of-way of the Klondike and Dempster highways. The cable will be able to withstand the diverse weather conditions and landscapes on northern Canada. In addition, construction methods will vary along the route to adjust to changes in terrain. For example, although most of the cable will be buried underground some sections may be attached to existing Yukon Energy poles or attached to bridges for water crossings.First announced in 2015, the Dempster broadband project was to be completion by 2017 but current estimates of the timeline indicate that the project will not be completed until 2025. So even though the project will address the urban rural broadband divide it will take considerable amount of time to complete.

Beverly Brooks, MA MBA, is an economist who has worked in the federal government and the private sector. While working for the Economic Development Branch of the federal Department of Finance, she was responsible for infrastructure and regional development issues in northern Canada. She later worked on government relations strategies for a major telecommunications company.