After years of work by the GwaiiTel Society, a $10-million upgrade is underway to bring islanders faster, more reliable, more widely available Internet.
It’s an epic task.
For one thing, until the islands can tap into a marine cable — a hugely expensive job that starts with renting a submarine — every cat video, email, money transfer or Facebook ‘like’ that isn’t sent here by satellite has to zip 124.83 km over the Hecate Strait.
All that data is beamed precisely between a microwave radio tower on Mount Hayes and another above Old Massett.
“It’s got to go from dish to dish,” says Mark Halwa, project manager for the GwaiiTel upgrade.
“That’s a pretty small target over 125 kilometres.”
So far as Halwa knows, it’s the longest microwave shot in North America.
That wireless link remains the biggest bottleneck for the islands’ network, but the GwaiiTel upgrade is making it much less of a squeeze.
Thanks to a second set of radios, the amour of data travelling over the Hecate will double, going from 366 to 722 megabits per second.
And that’s the easy part.
Anyone driving the Graham Island highway these days can see what a challenge it is to install the backbone of the on-island network — a new fibre-optic line that stretches 114 km from Masset to Skidegate, with a connecting branch to the end of the paved section of Tow Hill Road.
Equipped with a micro-blade plow and a directional drill, crews have to be extremely careful as they go, drilling well below rivers, streams and Haida archaeological sites.
And inside each spool of green or orange conduit is a cable with 96 strands of fibre-optic glass inside.
It’s a big change. Until the new backbone lights up, likely in May, GwaiiTel’s only fibre-optic lines are the much shorter, 12-strand links connecting Queen Charlotte to Skidegate and Masset to Old Massett (Another set of microwave radios keeps Sandspit in the loop).
Haida Gwaii has two Internet service providers, or ISPs, who will get to access the new fibre-optic backbone and begin connecting individual homes and businesses to it.
“Really, all you need are two of the fibres in there to light up your whole island,” said Dylan Griffiths, president of DSG Communications, which is carrying out the work as part of Lite Access Technologies.
“There are only four lighting up all of Vancouver.”
Having a 96-strand backbone will help ‘future-proof’ the system — leaving plenty of dark fibre to light up. Also, a few major customers might pay for a dedicated line of their own.
But with so many scattered locations, especially mid-island where access is weakest today, it takes planning to avoid using up even 96 strands as the network branches.
Griffiths recently gave a tour to several GwaiiTel directors and the Observer to show how the upgrade is going.
“We’ve been using this product for 30 years, believe it or not,” he said at the outset.
“People think it’s new technology, but it really isn’t.”
Born in Wales, Griffiths spliced copper phone lines for his father, who he followed into a decades-long career at British Telecom before he and his brothers struck out on their own.
Griffiths has installed fibre-optics in London, England and across the West Kootenays, but he has never had a job quite like the one on Haida Gwaii.
In big cities, the task is usually to pull copper out of existing conduit and replace it with fibre-optics.
What Griffiths does differently is “micro-trenching,” which means digging an unusually narrow channel and using thinner conduit, all to lessen the disturbance when new lines are needed. His company is among the first to lay fibre-optic lines right inside city streets.
Micro-trenching is also proving useful here on Haida Gwaii.
Standard lines trap so much air that they slowly float to the surface wherever there is a high water table, Griffiths said, which it is on all but 20 km of the Masset to Skidegate route.
And as any gardener knows, earth tends to close naturally over a narrower trench.
By late February, Griffith’s crew had buried just over half the main line, and laser-tested 40 km.
“It’s all testing perfectly,” he said.
Stepping into a work trailer south of Masset, Griffiths showed one thing installers have to avoid.
“Watch this now,” he said, bending a short strand of fibre-optic glass in his fingers.
At the open end, the red laser light went dim.
“That’s a big loss,” he said, noting that the light should still be visible 7 or 8 km down the line, and is usually strong enough to carry data for 50 or 60 km.
Because it’s impossible to build or ship a single 114-km roll of fibre-optic cable, and because the main line needs several access boxes along the way, Griffith’s crew has to build the main line by splicing several sections together.
At each splice, all 96 glass fibres have to be perfectly fused.
Surprisingly, Griffiths said that’s not where signal losses happen — the biggest risk of signal loss comes from how the fibres are curved in each splice case.
Just across the Chown River bridge, Griffiths caught up with his son Cai, who was splicing together glass fibres and tucking them into one of those cases.
Each time Cai welded the glass ends together, his fusing machine measured the likely signal loss — on one strand it was just 0.01 per cent.
Working with such fine materials makes it easy to pinpoint problems down the line.
“On 114 kilometres, I can find a fault to about 10 millimetres,” said Griffiths.
Farther south, close to Lawn Hill, Griffiths checked on the drilling crew, who were just then routing conduit about three metres deep for a distance of 300 metres in order to clear a Haida archaeological site.
Owen Jones was there on behalf of the Haida Nation to monitor the work and alert the crew to other protected sites or plants along the way, a job he said was going well so far.
Along with those sites and watercourses, the drilling crew has had to negotiate tree roots, solid rock, and buried timbers leftover from the old plank road between Tlell and Port Clements.
In a few wet spots, his plow crew had to float planks just to keep the machine moving.
A short video Griffiths put together of the work so far has a booming orchestral backing track — think fibre-optic installers working in a Haida Gwaii downpour, all to Ride of the Valkyries.
But Griffiths was cheerful about the challenge.
“It’s a unique place to do this,” he said, smiling.