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Fort Smith cut off for nine hours

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 28, 2012

For about eight hours last week, Fort Smith was virtually incommunicado.

On May 22, a fibre-optic cable was accidentally cut on Highway 5, about 90 km west of the community.

As a result, Fort Smith lost a number of services, including long-distance telephone, the Internet, local and long-distance cell phone, and the use of credit card and debit machines.

"Everything going in and coming out of Fort Smith was affected," said Emily Younker, manager of corporate communications with NorthwesTel in Whitehorse.

Younker described such an outage as an "isolating event" for a community.

Local landline telephone service was unaffected.

Younker said the cut, which occurred at 1:08 p.m., was caused by a work crew.

"It was actually repairing a sinkhole," she said, noting it was not a GNWT work crew.

Once the connection was cut, a NorthwesTel technician in Fort Smith had to start looking for the location of the problem.

"When it's a fibre cut, you actually have to go out and physically find where the cut has occurred," Younker said, noting the technician found the cut after about an hour and a half.

At that point, technicians were dispatched from Hay River and Yellowknife.

"We had some people travel out to begin temporary repairs immediately," Younker said. "That means they go in and splice things as quickly as they can to get service restored. So by 9 p.m. Mountain Time, we had temporary service restored and then permanent service restored at 10:25 in the evening."

Almost everyone in Fort Smith would have been affected by the cut - individuals, businesses and government operations.

"It was inconvenient," said Mayor Janie Hobart, noting many businesses and government agencies depend on electronic data flow.

Hobart said it was also unusual not to be able to use a cell phone, noting, "Many of us have become quite dependent on a cell phone."

Dana Jackson, president of the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce 2012, noted the outage particularly hurt businesses when debit and credit card service was unavailable.

"It was a standstill," she said. "Everything was cash only."

Jackson said there was also no routine communication with the outside world.

"It was a complete disconnect," she said.

Younker said NorthwesTel is investigating the cut and also working with the work crew to ensure that all fibre-optic locations in the area are well known, adding NorthwesTel is not placing blame anywhere.

Cuts to fibre-optic cables occasionally happen during construction season throughout NorthwesTel's service area.

"I wouldn't say it happens often, but every now and again," Younker said.

NorthwesTel advertises to advise work crews and everyone else to call the company and check for buried cables before digging.

"It's frustrating for the company. It's very frustrating for the customer," Younker said of outages caused by accidental cuts of cable. "We totally recognize that and that's why it is so important to call each and every time."

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