A third-party crew working on Highway 20 cut the only Telus communications cable serving the entire area west of Williams Lake on Tuesday, November 17, resulting in a nearly 24-hour communications blackout for a large part of the region.
Telus customers in the Hagensborg, Bella Coola, Tatla Lake, Puntzi Mountain and Chilanko Forks didn’t get service restored until 3am the following day. This included landlines, cell phone, and internet service; only those with a satellite connection could communicate out.
“Telus crews worked throughout the evening and overnight in challenging conditions to fully restore service to all customers around 3 a.m. on Wednesday (November 18) morning,” said Liz Sauve, media spokesperson for Telus. “This was a unique situation which presented a number of challenges for our crews. The location of the cut was in a remote area off of Highway 20 near Alexis Creek, which is not easily accessible by vehicle, making it difficult for our crews to access the cut with the vehicles and equipment required to fix the damage.”
Telus said the damage was extensive – it was not just one cable that was cut, but 24 separate fibre lines. The company had to bring in specialized repair crew members from Prince George who traveled in snowy conditions, and the replacement cable was sourced separately from Williams Lake.
The incident is not unique and has happened before. Fortunately the fix has almost always been delivered as quickly as possible, but this may not always be the case. The 2017 wildfires came dangerously close to burning the line near Riske Creek, and that situation would most certainly not be such a quick fix. Raging wildfires across the Chilcotin Plateau would have severely compromised Telus’s ability to fix the system if it was damaged, and at present there is no alternative communications system (other than satellite) to communicate outside of the Valley.
“We take a number of proactive measures to protect our infrastructure and the services we know our customers rely upon, particularly as we head into the fall and winter months when severe weather can pose risks to our network. For example, we recently hired an arborist company to clear 90 trees along Highway 20 that posed the potential risk of falling onto our cable in high winds, potentially damaging our cable and disrupting services to our customers,” said Sauve. “Unfortunately in this specific and isolated incident, this third-party accident could not have been prevented by Telus.”
The problem has been brought to the attention of local North Coast MLA-elect Jennifer Rice, who indicated upgrades may be forthcoming by Telus.
“This situation has been very concerning for people in the Bella Coola Valley, and is an important safety issue. I understand that Telus has upgrades planned to improve the resiliency and reliability of the network infrastructure that serves the Valley which would prevent this sort of occurrence from happening again in the future,” said Rice. “The Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development, and Competitiveness (whose mandate includes connectivity issues) is in touch with Telus about the improvements as that work goes on, and we should know more soon about what the timeline for it will be.”
Essential services in the Valley, such as the hospital, have extensive satellite back-up systems in the event of such an outage.
“Bella Coola General Hospital is very well prepared for power outages, and has regular meetings to ensure that plans are up to date and back-up systems all function properly. The hospital also has satellite phones for communication and back-up generators so that all services continue without interruption,” said Celso Pereira, Public Affairs Leader,Vancouver Coastal Health. “Hospital leadership work very closely with Health Emergency Management B.C., as they monitor any future potential situations very closely.”
The Central Coast Communications Society, the main internet provider for the Valley, also counts on Telus’s infrastructure but has also come up with some innovative solutions. They have created a chat service that uses either direct chat, or public or private chat “rooms” where people can share files, create videos or audio files to upload to the chat, or use the video conferencing function and it can be used without Telus’ service.
“These services are meant to be accessed whether the fiber line (i.e. Telus) is up or down. When the fiber line is down, it is only available to CCCS subscribers at the place where their service is installed. This is not to exclude anyone else, but there is no means for us to deliver this service to people without CCCS internet,” said CCCS contractor Andrew Stapleton. “When the fiber line is up, it will work for anyone, even outside the valley. The way it is setup allows people’s computers to “resolve” the web address locally and does not require outside services to find it. That means even if the fiber is down, you can type chat.belco.bc.ca into your browser and it should come up regardless.”
Stapleton stressed that the service is still in development so users shouldn’t expect it to be perfect, but that the CCCS aims to have it functioning at all times.
The other key local player is Nuxalk Radio, who also possess the ability to broadcast locally without the fiber lines. Their services could prove essential in the future should a longer blackout occur.
Central Coast Regional District CAO Courtney Kirk said that the recent outage was concerning for local people looking to access first responder service.
“We pulled together an impromptu unofficial meeting of some first responders early afternoon on Tuesday [Nov. 17] that included RCMP. Radios were provided for the RCMP to reach ambulance, volunteer fire suppression and search and rescue, with hospital admin looped in once a strategy was in place,” said Kirk. “An announcement was then made on Nuxalk Radio by Nuxalk Chief Wally Webber and an RCMP member instructing community members impacted by the blackout that the RCMP office would be staffed 24 hours through the outage to ensure anyone who went there for first response help could get fire, ambulance or RCMP/SAR deployed as needed.”
One initiative that would fix the problem is the Connected Coast project, which is slated to construct and operate a subsea fibre-optic network to provide 154 landings at rural and remote coastal communities including Bella Coola. The project would provide a communications redundancy for the Valley, something it needs to avoid the blackout scenario.
The $45.4 million project was initially announced in January 2018 and is estimated to benefit more that 175,000 B.C. households with the laying of 3,400 km of subsea cable. It has been dormant for a number of years but is being refreshed after a COVID-19 slow down and the company transition to a new CEO, CityWest said in a news release on Oct. 13.
The project complements Trudeau’s recent announcement of over a billion dollars in funding from the federal government to bring high-speed internet to rural and remote communities across the country.