Lucky for ex-MP Peter Penashue he no longer needs to boast about Labrador’s new fibre optic Internet to get re-elected to Parliament — it wouldn’t do him much good these days.
When the Conservative minister resigned his seat and hit the hustings, he claimed credit for the federal government’s $3-million support for the “48-fibre communications cable” from western Labrador to Happy Valley-Goose Bay (total cost was $24 million, with provincial taxpayers contributing $11.3 million and Bell Aliant kicking in $9.7 million). It became one of Penashue’s main campaign planks, especially when he promised another $1.35 million to extend the line to Sheshatshiu and North West River just before the prime minister dropped the writ.
“He worked with government and private industry to increase Internet speed in Labrador,” the Conservative Party declared.
It seemed like a good idea at the time — despite the politics. Improvements were definitely needed. Bell Aliant, which operates a near-monopoly, had already declared Labrador’s Internet to be full. In 2011, a company spokesman ruled out expansion because of how much it costs to connect small numbers of remote customers:
“I know that’s not what these communities want to hear, but it’s a reality of our world. It comes down to a call based on the size of the community and potential customers in that community and the length of time it would take us to get back that investment for connecting that community.”
Link to Labrador
Of course, neither Penashue nor the federal government were the first to come up with the idea of running fibre optic cable into Labrador. During Danny Williams’ first mandate the provincial government allocated $200,000 for “feasibility, engineering and environmental studies related to establishing a fibre optic link to Labrador.” The studies not only looked at bringing one in from the west, but also at running one under the Strait of Belle Isle.
“The field work for the first phase of the study was completed in May 2008,” reads a progress update of the government’s Northern Strategic Plan for Labrador. “Site visits were made along the Labrador Straits to determine the best landing locations for the cable-laying ship.”
These provincial studies eventually lead the agencies to choose the overland route — much to the disappointment of southern Labradorians, no doubt, but nevertheless to the satisfaction of the Internet-starved populace in the upper Lake Melville area.
Not meant to benefit customers
Although the expansion of service was not meant to directly benefit consumers (since, as Penashue said in December 2011, it was primarily intended to “improve the ability of companies in the region to establish, expand and operate more efficiently”), the promise of a bit of extra bandwidth left over for residential use made a lot of people happy. When construction of the 490-kilometre pole line started early last summer (despite the Conservative byelection loss) its progress was keenly followed. However, as work proceeded, as contractors put up thousands of thin wooden poles and suspended thin fibre optic wires between them, the whole thing began to look somewhat fragile. More than one person noted how short the poles were in comparison to nearby trees and how far the lines had to run across the windy landscape. More than one person wondered how often nature would cut the service and how long it would take Bell Aliant to find and repair the breaks.
Now everyone knows: often and days. Fire was the first culprit. When a blaze broke out near Wabush the flames twice melted the optical fibres and deprived everyone eastwards of their Internet. Service was restored after a while, but it was lost again only last week, reportedly because a tree fell across and severed the cable somewhere. Repairs went on into the weekend before they were successful.
When it works the new and improved Internet is a little faster than it used to be and will allow more customers to join, but it suffers from a big weakness that has no obvious solution — even the option of burying lines won’t necessarily protect them from nature.
Maybe the answer lies within. If we can learn to wean ourselves from the modern necessity of being connected to the Internet, then all the prolonged disruptions we must now expect won’t be able to inconvenience us quite as much.
Michael Johansen is a resident of North West River, Labrador