RCMP investigating widespread N.W.T. telecoms outage as 'senseless' vandalism

Police say Northwestel found the damaged fibre line between Behchoko, N.W.T., and Yellowknife on Monday. The RCMP's Federal Investigations Unit is investigating this as the second major disruption of communications in the N.W.T.

Services restored for most customers late afternoon in 2nd major disruption in a month

RCMP in the N.W.T. are advising the public of potential interruptions when calling detachments in the territory due to Monday's major telecommunications disruption in Yellowknife. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

RCMP are investigating Monday's major telecommunications disruption in Yellowknife — that stifled local business and hampered long-distance phone service across the North — as a "deliberate act of vandalism."

"[Services] were severely impacted by [a] damaged fibre optic line," stated a news release issued by N.W.T. RCMP on Monday afternoon. Police say most N.W.T. communities were affected, as well as the Yellowknife area.

"RCMP began an investigation into what seems to be a deliberate act of vandalism to the fibre optic cable," the statement read.

Police say Northwestel found the damaged fibre line between Behchoko and Yellowknife. The RCMP's Federal Investigations Unit is investigating this as the second major disruption of communications in the N.W.T., according to the news release.

"These senseless acts have impacted our communities and affected the safety and comfort of citizens," Staff Sgt. Dean Riou said in the news release.

"It is too early to determine if this incident is related to the July 13 incident," police said. RCMP are investigating any potential links.

Police are asking anyone with information on either incident to contact RCMP.

Some issues resolved in Yellowknife

Some service issues seemed to be resolved for some customers in the Yellowknife area shortly after 4 p.m. MT. The internet stopped working properly at around 8:45 a.m. MT on Monday.

Most services were restored just before 5 p.m., Northwestel said in a tweet.

Earlier in the day, cellphones in Yellowknife were working intermittently, but internet browsers were loading slowly. TV and home phone services were also impacted.

The Yellowknife disruption also caused "considerable congestion in long-distance phone service in northern B.C., Yukon, N.W.T. and Nunavut," Andrew Anderson, a spokesperson for Northwestel, said earlier in the day. 

He said local phone services were still available.

Some customers in Fort Smith and Hay River had also reported internet issues. Anderson said people there may have faced trouble if they were trying to reach a website hosted in Yellowknife, because network servers routed to the city might have been affected.

Meanwhile, Yellowknife businesses were unable to complete debit or credit card transactions.

"We don't ever want to have to turn someone away because we can't give them their coffee," said Jawah Bercier, the owner of downtown café Birchwood Coffee Ko, where payments were cash-only on Monday. "To even just get here and realize, 'Oh, I don't have cash,' or, 'I can't get what I wanted,' is pretty disappointing."

A sign was posted on the café door later Monday to let customers know the business closed early because of the outage.

Birchwood Coffee Ko was forced to close early on Monday because of an internet outage affecting the city. Spotty internet meant the coffee shop could only accept cash, instead of debit or credit card payments. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Yellowknife's downtown Tim Hortons also took a hit.

"There's quite a bit of loss in the sales," said assistant manager John Kenneth Bajada, who described the internet outages this summer as "horrible."

"There's nothing we can do about it. We just have to wait until Northwestel fixes it."

Staff at the Yellowknife Airport on Monday resorted to manual boarding — handwriting tickets and baggage tags — due to the outage.

John Kenneth Bajada, assistant manager of Tim Hortons in downtown Yellowknife, says a widespread telecommunications outage that hit the city Monday took a toll on sales. Internet was down in Yellowknife, meaning several businesses were unable to process debit and credit card transactions. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Several incidents of damage

This is the second major disruption to internet in Yellowknife in the last month. The internet was down for several hours on July 13 after the fibre optic line was cut.

In the wake of the July issue, Northwestel said it provided a credit of $4.67 to customers who asked for one.

As for the latest issue, "our focus right now is to identify the issue and fix it," said Anderson. "Once that's done, we'll turn our mind to what the impact has been."

Documents that CBC News obtained through the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act show the fibre line can be vulnerable.

Since its construction in March 2017, the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link has been struck by lightning and snagged and run over by a contractor. During repair work, a temporary cable was chewed at by wildlife — "most likely" wolves, according to the documents about the fibre line.

While many cities in Canada have several fibre lines between them, there is only one cable between Fort Providence and Yellowknife.

With files from Emily Blake, Sidney Cohen, Priscilla Hwang and Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi


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