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Time to upgrade aging telecom grid for Canada's Far North?

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

A massive communications shutdown in Canada's northwestern Yukon territory on Thursday has some thinking it's time to upgrade the territory's aging telecommunications infrastructure.

Andrew Robulack, an IT analyst and blogger in Yukon's capital city of Whitehorse, said the latest outage is disappointing but not surprising.

"We have a really strong dependency on a really weak infrastructure -- single provider in most cases, single network links in or out of our region -- and as the CRTC pointed out recently, the equipment is aging," he said.

"We shouldn't even be depending on it anymore so it's kind of like the total situation is set up for failures."

Cell service, land lines, internet and 911 were all down for about half the day Thursday in Yukon and the Mackenzie Delta region of Canada's Northwest Territories due to a problem at Northwestel's central office in Whitehorse that began following a territory-wide power outage. Some services in Iqaluit, the capital city of Canada's eastern Arctic territory of Nunauvt, were also affected.

Without 911 service, ambulances were posted on key streets in Whitehorse for citizens needing help and firefighters also stood by outside their hall as a sort of beacon in case of an emergency.

Businesses were unable to process debit and credit card transactions, and ATM machines were down.

Government officials and Northwestel are trying to figure out what happened.

"Over the next few days, the next week we'll be going to do a full network investigation," said Curtis Shaw, a spokesperson for Northwestel.

He said he can't explain a technical reason for the failure but said it's a serious issue the communications company doesn't want to see repeated.

Until this year, Northwestel was the sole provider of local telephone service in Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

In December 2011, the CRTC, Canada's Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, made the decision that opened the Northern market to competition criticized Northwestel for not sufficiently investing in its network despite its strong financial performance. The commission said it was concerned that the company's aging infrastructure had affected the quality and reliability of its service.

Robulack said the Yukon Government needs to step up.

"We're talking about data in and out, not cars and trucks in and out, but that's also a lot of value coming in and out of the territory and if the Yukon government wants to be the one that takes credit for the economic wins of the territory, it's also got to take ownership and responsibility for the infrastructure."

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.