Islands Internet providers expect to tap new GwaiiTel network this summer

Never mind Silicon Valley, this summer Haida Gwaii could have its own Silicon Plateau.

Never mind Silicon Valley, this summer Haida Gwaii could have its own Silicon Plateau.

While many islanders already enjoy Internet speeds fast enough to stream videos, others are limited to snail’s pace email, and then only when their connections work.

But once GwaiiTel lights up the islands’ new fibre-optic network in May, local Internet providers will be able to offer faster service in areas such as Tlell, and to hook up first-time customers in Tow Hill.

“It’s going to give me the ability to bring more speed to the people, and eventually it’s going to reduce my cost so I can reduce charges for customers,” said Jim Pazarena, owner of QCIslands Net, which serves about 700 customers from Sandspit to Port Clements.

Pazarena said GwaiiTel’s $10- million upgrade is like going from a two-lane road to a 10-lane highway.

Today, he explained, GwaiiTel rents a “two-lane,” or 200 Mb Telus line to serve Queen Charlotte, Skidegate and Sandspit, plus a “one-lane,” or 100 Mb line into Port Clements.

Meanwhile, the main line to Tlell handles just 10 Mb of traffic — more of a walking trail.

By early summer, Pazarena said nearly all his customers should have connections quick enough for streaming video.

The actual benchmark set out in GwaiiTel’s federal grant is for “five and one” Internet, which means end users can download data at 5 Mb, and upload it at 1 Mb.

“I’ve got a lot of people that can already do 10 and 10,” said Pazarena.

For any Internet network, Pazarena said there are three potential bottlenecks: connecting to the world at large, moving data between communities, and making “last mile” connections to end users.

GwaiiTel is tackling the first two.

The non-profit society is building a second radio link to the mainland at Old Massett, and the new fibre-optic line that crews are installing from Old Massett to Skidegate will bring “10-lane” Internet to all islands communities.

GwaiiTel is also installing a caching server, which automatically downloads popular files so that islanders don’t have to fetch the same data from across the Hecate Strait.

But the final bottleneck, making “last mile” connections, is a job for local Internet providers like QCIslands Net and, in the north end, Gwaii Communications.

Pazarena uses last-mile cable connections in Sandspit and some fibre-optic ones in Skidegate and Queen Charlotte, but most of his customers connect wirelessly, over WiFi.

Since last fall, Pazarena has been upgrading all his wireless customers’ gear so they can take full advantage of the GwaiiTel upgrade.

A few of those customers who live in heavily treed areas may need to wait a bit longer, he said, as Industry Canada still has to okay wireless Internet equipment that uses the more penetrating frequencies once used by TV broadcasters — so-called “TV white space.”

“I certainly have my challenges, but I’ve been going gung-ho since last September, upgrading areas,” Pazarena said.

“The majority of my customers can stream Netflix, but some can’t, and I’m working on those.”

For Jeff Lavoie of Gwaii Communications, which is based in Masset, the GwaiiTel upgrade is mainly about expanding to Tow Hill, and accelerating his company’s shift from cable to fibre optics.

“It means a lot more for communities in the south,” said Lavoie.

Gwaii Communications has about 500 cable TV and Internet customers in Old Massett, Masset, and New Town — communities that Lavoie said are pretty well wired-up already.

Starting this summer, Tow Hill residents will access the same service for the first time.

From its Masset office to three community boxes in Tow Hill — one near Eagle Road, another between the Chown and Sangan Rivers, and a third near Limberlost Place — Gwaii Communications will carry Internet and TV signals over the GwaiiTel fibre-optic line.

At each box, the data can split off to dozens of separate homes, carried on overhead fibre-optic lines installed by Gwaii Communications. A small converter at each house will allow those light signals to be read by standard cable modems and TVs.

Besides connecting Tow Hill, Lavoie said and he and his staff are learning from the fibre-optic contractors doing the GwaiiTel upgrade so they can do similar work in the future.

“It’s nice, relaxing,” said Lavoie, comparing the task of fusing the 96 glass strands in the fibre-optic line to talking with the Observer.

Shifting to fibre-optics means spending tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment and training, but Lavoie said that’s par for the course — the same thing happened a generation ago, when the business went from roof antennas to cable TV.

Pazarena said having a local company that can handle fibre-optics will make a big difference to islanders in the unlikely event that GwaiiTel’s underground fibre-optic mainline is ever broken.

“If the fibre gets damaged, I’m going to call on Jeff to repair it,” said Pazarena, who can well remember the day a few years ago when a logging truck accidentally tore down the existing Telus fibre-optic line just north of Skidegate.

Pazarena phoned Telus, who had just enough time to fly over a repair crew on the last flight out of Terrace.

“We were down, zero communication, from two in the afternoon to about three in the morning,” said Pazarena.

“Timing’s critical.”