Question re: Internet service reliability – April 22, 2013

Mr. Silver: Mr. Speaker, one issue that was highlighted in last year’s budget speech was the reliability or unreliability of our Internet service. At the time, the Premier said, and I quote: “…broadband capacity could be improved and there is no redundancy.”

This is an issue that the Liberal caucus has highlighted as well.

Despite the Premier’s lofty budget pronouncements, there was no funding to actually improve broadband capacity. Last fall, I asked the Minister of Economic Development what his government was going to do to address this issue. At that time, he said it was a private sector problem and really had nothing to do with the government. Earlier this year, the minister changed his opinion. At a luncheon, he announced the government would be funding a bankable feasibility study to examine an alternate fibre optic link to Juneau through Skagway.

How much money has been set aside, and when will this feasibility study be completed?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: I thank the member opposite for the question. It’s a valuable one and certainly one that has been brought to my attention by a number in the business community, as well as a number of industry organizations like the Yukon Chamber of Commerce and the Yukon Information Technology and Industry Society. In this budget the member will see — as I’m sure we will get into when we debate the budget in Committee of the Whole — a number of funding mechanisms that have been made available to that particular industry and to that particular project.

With regard to the announcements I made at the chamber lunch, we committed to a series of actions that are going to help us move forward with telecommunications development in the territory. We have undertaken a number of those actions already, like providing annual core funding to YITIS, the Yukon Information Technology and Industry Society, as well as working with them to implement the recommendations in their sector study. We’re working collaboratively with the private sector. We’re engaged in a number of processes with Northwestel through the CRTC, and we remain engaged with a number of other private sector components to advance telecommunications infrastructure and programming services in the territory. The key point here I’d like to make is that we understand that telecommunications are important to northerners, and to Yukoners specifically, and we’re working hard to advance that infrastructure.

Mr. Silver: I appreciate the minister’s answers, and I also appreciate his enthusiasm about this project. I wish there was more enthusiasm. Improvements to our broadband capacity are essential in improving our small business competitiveness. This was one of the main findings of a study conducted last year by Yukon College. The minister painted a pretty dismal picture of the current situation at the luncheon that I spoke of earlier in February — high prices for services, low speed, disruptions in service, et cetera.

After 10 years in office, the Yukon Party is finally addressing an issue that is slowing down the progress of our IT industry — better late than never.

We know the cost of fixing the redundancy issue is upward of $15 million. It won’t happen without significant contributions from this government and from the private sector. Is the government prepared to make that investment?

Hon. Mr. Dixon: I would point out to the member opposite that I was elected in the fall of 2011, the same year as he was. He also notes and characterized my speaking notes from the lunch event. I found it a bit humorous because of course he wasn’t there, so he obviously didn’t find it enough of a priority to join the Yukon chamber in discussing these important issues. It’s nice to hear him bring it up in the House and to debate it now.

Now, I have clearly made this a priority for the Department of Economic Development. We have created a specific directorate within the Department of Economic Development, particularly for the advancement of technology and telecommunications infrastructure.

As well, as he has noted, we’ve indicated that we’d like to conduct a feasibility study of the possibility of a redundant fibre optic line to the south through Juneau and Alaska. Of course, we’re exploring a number of models for that presently.

There are a number of different ways that could happen. As I’ve said, and as the member opposite noted, none of this would be possible without some significant role for the private sector so, of course, we’re going to stay engaged with private sector proponents, like Northwestel and like other industry representatives from YITIS, to advance telecommunications infrastructure in the north.

Mr. Silver: I’d like to point out to the member opposite that there is only one of me. I can’t be everywhere. I’m going to keep it to the topic here. It’s too bad that the government had to bail out the Hospital Corporation to the tune of $27 million. Some of that money could have come to support the continuing growth of the IT sector — the private sector. It could have been used to address the redundancy issues that the government itself identified as a concern a year ago. It could have been used to improve broadband services.

At this point, the government has at least committed to spending $200,000 for a feasibility study, and that is a positive development. Again, this project is never going to happen without a significant investment from the Yukon government.

The minister has dropped his opposition to participating in this project, and that’s a good thing. It will take a contribution from the government and the private sector to make a second connection happen. Will the minister put on the record today a commitment to help this second connection?

Hon. Mr. Pasloski: You know, technology changes as we move along and, as the member opposite was referring to, 10 years — I remember the first computer that I bought had a hard drive that had 40 megabytes, and I never thought that I would ever fill that up, so things certainly do change as we move along.

I think the reality is that what we’re talking about is a strong economy and that’s because of the 10 years that this government has been in place. There is the opportunity to diversify the economy and to have identified such things as a knowledge network, which the Minister of Economic Development has done an incredible job on in leading us forward.

Yes, we still have challenges. We talk about capacity and speed and the costs as well for telecommunications and redundancy. This goes along with the challenges and the opportunities we have on the infrastructure side of it, as well as in transportation, and we also continue to focus on issues like education and health. Why? Because we have a growing economy and we have a growing population because this government continues to deliver with strong financial results, and we’re moving this territory forward for all Yukoners.