The North Island could soon catch up with other Canadian regions in technological terms as Telus announces plans to improve the internet infrastructure.
Port Alice residents have long complained of the lack of bandwidth available to the village, and Port Hardy residents wishing to sign up for service have recently been told that the provider is at capacity in the region.
The issue at the heart of the problem is the outdated connection between Port McNeill and Sayward. While the areas to the north and south are outfitted with fibre optic cable, the older technology used to transmit data between the towns causes a bottleneck, effectively putting a cap on the internet speed and service levels available to North Islanders.
“The quality is really substandard compared to other areas,” said Port Hardy Mayor Bev Parnham.
Local politicians have been lobbying hard for some time to bridge the gap. Last summer the Regional District of Mount Waddington hosted a delegation from Telus and Network BC, where the telecom representatives committed to improving the local infrastructure.
“It’s been turning into a crisis for some time,” said Neil Smith, the RD’s Manager of Economic Development.
“It’s starting to cost jobs, and it affects things like rural education,” he added, referring to the modern model for distance education which places emphasis on video seminars and group sessions as well as electronic course delivery. “It’s progressively becoming worse.”
Local politicians have made reference to the catch-22 situation on the North Island, which lacks the customer base to make telecommunications companies want to invest, yet is unable to attract investment and foster growth due to the below-average standard of internet connectivity.
Now it appears that there is light at the end of the tunnel as Telus has begun to make inroads towards laying a fibre line between Sayward and Port McNeill, a move which would vastly improve the quality of service for North Islanders.
“We’ve been aware of the capacity crunch on North Vancouver Island for some time, mostly due to the rapidly increasing demand,” Telus’ Shawn Hall said. “We’re well into a $10 million project at the minute to fix that.”
Hall emphasized the complex challenges facing telecom engineers in bringing the line to the North Island. “It’s a massive undertaking. It’s 130 kilometres of some of the most difficult terrain — it’s an enormous, challenging undertaking.”
The project is slated to be completed in two phases: first from Sayward to Woss Lake, and then from Woss Lake to Port McNeill. Hall explained a proposal has been filed with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure for the first phase, and Telus expects to complete the engineering survey of the second phase and submit a proposal within weeks.
The company has two options in bringing the line up-Island — an underground line or overland on poles. Due to various considerations such as weather and the need to log back from the road to raise poles, the underground route is preferred by Telus.
Upon approval from the ministry, Telus would then begin work on digging a trench for the new line alongside the highway and laying the line, before upgrading the ‘backhaul’ segment of the network — similar to a switchboard on a phone network.
Hall was unable to speculate on how long the ministry’s approval process may take, but the hope was that it would be complete in the weeks to months timeframe.
“It’s coming,” said Hall. “We’re looking forward to bringing more capacity to the North Island.”
A fibre line would mean a huge leap in the bandwidth available to North Islanders. While Hall could not give specific figures — other considerations like the backhaul technology play a role — data transfer rates could improve by several orders of magnitude.
A fibre connection already exists between Port Hardy and Port McNeill, and GDF Suez is laying fibre from Port Hardy to Cape Scott at its own expense in anticipation of improved remote operations for its Cape Scott Wind Farm.
Smith greeted the news as “a huge step forward.”
“It’s a really positive step,” he said, adding he was pleased to see the company committing capital to the project. “I’m glad to see that some of the pressure and calls have borne a result.”
RD Chair Al Huddlestan echoed Smith’s sentiments. “It’s nice to see they’ve come to their senses,” he said. “We’ve lobbied for this for half a dozen years now. The proof will be in the pudding. To have anything less that fibre in this day and age puts businesses at a disadvantage.”
If all goes to plan, work on the project should begin in the fall of this year and be completed in 2014.