Fibre line under Great Slave Lake would help protect against changing climate, says Det'on Cho

As infrastructure becomes increasingly susceptible to floods and fire, Det'on Cho Management says an underwater fibre line connecting the North and South Slave regions will help protect against outages.

Det'on Cho Management is taking on the task of financing Northwestel's proposed fibre build

Det'on Cho Management announced on Nov. 25 it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Northwestel to partner on a fibre line under Great Slave Lake. Northwestel's vice-president of business markets Paul Gillard, left, signs the memorandum with Det'on Cho Management chief operating officer John Henderson and Det'on Cho Management president and CEO Paul Gruner. (Submitted by Det'on Cho)

It's only a matter of time before a major prolonged communications outage hits the Northwest Territories, says a company that's now helping to make a second fibre line to Yellowknife a reality.

Det'on Cho Management, the business arm of Yellowknives Dene First Nation, announced Nov. 25 it's partnering with Northwestel to build a fibre line underneath Great Slave Lake.

A memorandum of understanding signed between the two corporations means Det'on Cho will finance the project while Northwestel will build it.

Northwestel originally floated the idea of a submarine line in October 2019. The lone fibre line that currently runs up to Yellowknife alongside Highway 3 has been beleaguered by damage from the elements as well as vandalism in recent years.

Every time it goes down, Yellowknife and surrounding communities experience internet, TV and phone outages. Debit machines and banking services don't work, and flights get backlogged as airport staff have to resort to manual boarding.

John Henderson, the chief operating officer for Det'on Cho Management, says that's just the tip of the iceberg compared to what could happen in the event of a longer outage.

"We're in an environment where things are changing from a climate perspective. We're more susceptible to wildfire and things getting out of control," Henderson said.

"We've become so reliant on internet now that a major outage would cause chaos ... We've often thought about what happens if Yellowknife and surrounding areas around the Great Slave Lake were without service for a week. Well, we'd have a very significant problem on our hands, because people couldn't buy groceries, medicine, gas. People wouldn't get paid."

What's the cost?

This line is expected to help protect communications services in Yellowknife, Dettah, Ndilǫ, Behchokǫ, Whatì, Fort Providence, Hay River, Fort Resolution and Fort Smith.

Henderson ballparks the cost at between $15 and $20 million.

Det'on Cho would cover just over half that out of its own pocket and through funds from commercial lenders. For the rest, it will be looking for money from the federal or territorial governments.

"We are going to be seeking money, whether it's a one-time capital contribution or ongoing funding in maybe a service provider model. We're open to either ... but we do need to kind of close the funding gap that we have to make it a reality," Henderson explained.

It's a good time to be looking to finance a project like this, he added. He believes there's more interest in broadband projects than there has been in the past, and thinks the project fits the investment criteria of commercial lenders as well as Crown corporations like the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

Henderson said there are plenty of pieces — planning, engineering, regulations and consultation — that would need to fall into place, but if the financing comes through, construction could start as soon as the summer of 2023.

Once the line is completed, Det'on Cho will own it. Henderson said Northwestel will lease the line from them and operate, maintain and repair it.