Question re: Internet connectivity - November 16, 2015

Mr. Silver: Mr. Speaker, the Yukon Party has been talking about improving the reliability of our Internet and cellphone systems for the last three years and it has certainly been aware of it for almost the 14 years that they’ve been in office. Despite this, the recent announcement about a new fibre optic link up the Dempster Highway certainly looks like it was hastily written on the back of a napkin.

The only sure thing in the entire plan is that the government will try to say they can check off the done box when we go to the polls next year. The reality is that this project was announced with no financial plan attached to it. The reason is now very clear: there is no plan to finance it.

Mr. Speaker, other than the fact that they want to look like action has been taken on this issue, why did the government make this announcement when it’s clear that the money is not there to build it yet?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, this has been a long-standing issue over the last number of years and it has been studied consistently and thoroughly over the years. We’ve had debates about this and ultimately we have arrived at a decision, which is a route that we are planning for the provision of a new fibre optic line to the south. Ironically, that line goes north, but it will indeed connect us to the grid through the Mackenzie Valley line and thus provide Yukon with the redundancy and capacity that we need to allow our businesses here in Yukon to be competitive and to ensure Yukoners have comparable access to service here in the north.

Now, Mr. Speaker, over the years, we’ve studied a number of routes. We’ve looked at a route going south through Skagway to Juneau. We’ve looked at routes that have gone along the highway into Alaska. And, of course, we’ve studied this particular route up the Dempster Highway. Ultimately, after considerable deliberation, considerable discussion and considerable study, we’ve arrived at the conclusion that this is the best way forward for Yukon taxpayers, this is the best way forward for Yukon business, and this is the best way forward for Yukoners who are interested in seeing a competitive level of services for Internet and telecommunications here in the territory.

The costs, of course, are not complete yet on the overall side, Mr. Speaker. What we know is that the fibre line will be in the neighbourhood of $32 million. It’s a project that we feel has national significance and we’ll likely be seeking funding partners in both Northwest Territories and in Canada.

Mr. Silver: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, and we’re glad that this is now a priority for this government, but unfortunately, there is no plan in place to finance it. At the same time, the government’s commitment to — and I quote: “Maintain a level playing field in supporting small business and ensure that government funding…do not foster unfair competition within the business community” has been thrown out the window. For many years, the government maintained that this project would not be given to one company without competition. Now, in its last-minute decision to look busy before the election, it has decided not to tender this project but to simply give to one company millions of dollars of public money for nothing in return. A similar project in the Northwest Territories has just been tendered, for example, Mr. Speaker.

So why did the government break its promise to maintain a level playing field and simply select a winner with no competition?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: Well thank you, Mr. Speaker.

For the member opposite to suggest that this investment — that Yukon will receive nothing in return shows that he is simply not aware of how important this project is. Mr. Speaker, it’s important that Yukoners who rely on telecommunications and the Internet, more specifically, are provided a comparable level of service as those in the rest of Canada receive. It’s important to us that we move forward on this particular issue. It is a priority. That’s why we have seen significant investments made in this project over the years and now we see the next step forward with this particular project.

The simple reality though is that we live in a part of the country where it is not economical for businesses to do this on their own, so the Yukon government is stepping forward and has committed to invest in this project. As I indicated before, we see this project as having a greater significance than just the Yukon so we hope that the Government of Canada and we hope that the Government of the Northwest Territories will be interested in supporting it as well.

So we’ll be seeking funding partners going forward. We haven’t committed a dollar amount yet, Mr. Speaker, but we have committed to the project. We have committed to moving forward with it and we look forward to seeing the fast, affordable, reliable telecommunications that will come as a result of this significant investment in our IT industry here in the Yukon.

Mr. Silver: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. With all due respect, I think the minister is missing the point of the question. The Liberal caucus absolutely supports a second fibre optic link and we’re also prepared to support public investment in seeing this link established — absolutely. What we’re concerned about is this government picking winners and losers and funnelling money directly to one company or another without any competition. This is what the Yukon Party’s position was until it seems like they panicked and decided that announcing something before the next election was more important.

The government has received no guarantees from the company on pricing and has agreed to simply give the new line to the same company once it has been built. This is not the case in the Northwest Territories where a similar project is underway. This is a rollover. Any leverage the government had is now out the window.

So Mr. Speaker, why was announcing an agreement instead of negotiating some control over future pricing more important to this government?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, I’m reminded of the years past when the member opposite was criticizing us for not moving quicker. Now he’s criticizing us for panicking and making what he calls a hasty decision.

Mr. Speaker, we have studied this issue over and over. We have looked at the options. We have considered alternatives. We have looked at funding models and we have arrived at a conclusion and we have made a decision, which is that we think that the Dempster route is the most beneficial for Yukoners.

We think it will provide us with redundancy throughout the Yukon that we didn’t have previously. We think it’ll enhance our capacity, improve the resiliency of our telecommunications system and that it’s a reasonable project for the Yukon government to invest in. As I’ve indicated before, we do think that there are implications to this project that are broader than simply those belonging to Yukon and we think that this may be a project where there would be a reasonable degree of expectation that the Government of Canada and perhaps the Government of Northwest Territories would be interested in committing to it. As I’ve said, we haven’t arrived at a final conclusion as to how much those investments will be, mostly because in both the Northwest Territories and the Government of Canada we have relatively new governments and we want to take the time to speak with them and discuss what the options are going forward.

What we’ve indicated is that we have a general overview of the project’s costs and we have a commitment by the Yukon government to participate. While we haven’t hammered out the details yet, we are committed to this project and we think it will be of benefit to all Yukoners.