Internet outage a costly headache, say Whitehorse businesses

'We need to know that the people that are creating these outages are being held accountable,' says Mike Pemberton of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber of commerce says construction crews that cut fibre line should be held accountable

'You never know about the sale you missed,' said Mike Pemberton who owns several downtown retail businesses in Whitehorse. (CBC)

Whitehorse retail business owner Mike Pemberton estimates he lost upwards of $30,000 on Monday, when the territory was without broadband connectivity for most of the day — though he admits it's hard to know the true cost.

"You never know about the sale you missed," said Pemberton, who's also the vice chair of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 450 businesses.

Yukoners were abruptly cut off from the web Monday morning when a construction crew working in northern B.C. accidentally severed Northwestel's sole fibre cable into the territory. The mishap also affected phone and TV service to some Northwestel customers in the N.W.T. and Nunavut.

Pemberton says such outages are frustrating for business owners, because they never know exactly when service might be restored.

"It's sort of a situation where you have to make a call — is it going to come back, is it not going to come back? And at some point, we decide to shut those [business] services down and send [employees] home.

"It's always a loss."

Not the first time

A similar incident happened last year, when the line was accidentally cut near Watson Lake. That internet outage also lasted several hours.

Pemberton says something needs to be done to ensure it won't keep happening.

"We need to know that the people that are creating these outages are being held accountable," he said.

Joel Witten with Northwestel says fibre lines can be damaged 'from time to time" especially with third party construction. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

​Northwestel blamed an unnamed "third party" crew for simply being careless in their work.

"Unfortunately, they weren't able to be as conscious as they should have been," said Northwestel spokesperson Joel Witten. 

He said Northwestel was "going to conduct an investigation", but would not say whether the company responsible would be held accountable in any way.

No fines or penalties for cutting fibre lines

Don't expect it, said Mike Sullivan, a lobbyist with the Canadian Common Ground Alliance. He says he's not aware of any jurisdiction in Canada where fines are levied or penalties imposed for cutting fibre optic lines. 

"I think what it comes down to is awareness," he said. 

"For reasons that might not be understood, people will go ahead and figure, 'I know where it is, I don't have to worry about it, I'm not going to hit anything, I'm not going that deep.

"The bottom line is, they simply don't know where the buried line is."

Sullivan says there tend to be fewer incidents in jurisdictions with a publicized "one call" system for contractors and other workers to find out where lines are buried.

He's also pushing for federal legislation to protect underground infrastructure such as fibre optic lines, saying that would make it possible to impose fines or penalties on repeat offenders.

Northwestel has admitted its sole fibre line to Yukon is vulnerable to damage. Some sections are not even buried. Motorist Paul Scholz recently spotted this exposed section alongside the Alaska Highway. (Paul Scholz)

With files from Nancy Thomson and Dave Croft


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