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‘When it gets pulled there’s nothing left’: Haida Gwaii losing Xplornet

Discontinuation of satellite service leaving dozens of residents across Haida Gwaii with no options
Xplornet has announced that by Dec. 31, 2020 it will be discontinuing satellite service for less than 40 islanders. (Xplornet Communications Inc./Facebook photo)

Tlellians were atwitter last week after Xplornet announced service to the islands is being discontinued in December.

The rural internet telecom sent out a notice to subscribers on Aug. 13, saying the satellite they rely on to provide service to Haida Gwaii has reached the end of its life and will no longer be available, sparking discussion in the Tlell Community Facebook group.

“We are sorry to say that these circumstances are beyond our control,” the notice said, adding that service will be discontinued by Dec. 31. “As this is the only Internet product offered by Xplornet where you live, this unfortunately means that we will no longer have an Xplornet option to provide you with Internet service.”

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Xplornet spokesperson Steve Van Groningen told the Observer the satellite that has reached the end of its life is called Anik F2, one of five satellites the telecom uses to provide broadband service in rural and remote regions across Canada.

Van Groningen said most customers who receive their services from Anik F2 will be converted to a different Xplornet platform after Dec. 31, but “a limited number of customers in British Columbia are outside of the coverage area of our other satellites.”

He said less than 40 customers on Haida Gwaii will be affected.

“In either case, Xplornet is contacting affected customers to advise them of the situation,” he said. “We continue to look for options for customers who are out of our coverage area and will notify them of any change in the situation.”

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Sophie Peerless told the Observer discontinuation of the service will leave no options for her family and others who live in the dead zone north of Tlell. She is out of cell range there and was bypassed by the free, fibre-optic internet hookups brought to hundreds of Haida Gwaii homes in 2018, funded largely by the federal government, with a $500,000 contribution from GwaiiTel, $400,000 from the province, and $163,000 from Gwaii Communications.

“[Xplornet] was a real way to stay connected,” she said, adding that she started using the service in 2006. “When it gets pulled there’s nothing left.”

The notice Xplornet sent out to Peerless and others offered to help identify potential alternative service providers, but when she called a representative for support, she learned the alternatives only apply to the mainland.

Peerless said she is left wondering how she will do online banking and communicate with her children in the future.

As a teacher at Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary School she will have some access to the internet during the day. However, she fears her husband, who does construction, will be harder hit.

“For him not to have any of that, it’s really going to affect him,” she said.

Ideally she is hoping another provider will step in before the end of the year.

“We’re used to slow. I don’t mind slow, but I’m not used to non-existent,” she said. “Maybe someone somewhere out there wants to fill this gap that Xplornet’s going to leave.”

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Another Sk’aadgaa Naay teacher, Vanessa Wahl, lives south of Wiggins Road. Wahl was also missed by the first phase of fibre-optic connections back in 2018 and relies solely on Xplornet.

When she received her notice from Xplornet, she asked Mascon workers to come out and see if they can connect her to the GwaiiTel mainline.

Mascon is a brand of Telus, which acquired Gwaii Communications in January.

Unfortunately, she said “no one is really willing to do the work.”

“There’s a cable running there that can get connected,” she said, adding that she lives about 350 metres from the box. “I’d be willing to pay to excavate so they could put the cable down, but nobody’s able to do it and I don’t know why, because they’re all getting government dollars,” she said. “People are accepting money, but not actually connecting everybody.”

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With an unpredictable school year ahead due to the ongoing pandemic, Wahl said she is concerned about her ability to work from home if needed.

“If we have to work from home I can’t,” she said.

Online banking and staying connected with loved ones amid COVID-19 will also become near impossible for her family.

“Right now it’s our only connection to the outside world,” she said of the internet. “You kind of wonder how people can manage staying here without that.”

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Zena Theirstein, who lives on Nadu Road on the north end of Graham Island, also told the Observer she had been relying on Xplornet and will have no internet options come December.

In addition to volunteering in emergency management, Theirstein said she runs two businesses from home and will have to decide if she is going to move or give up her positions.

She said several other residents in the Nadu area are also going to be affected.

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GwaiiTel Society Chair Evan Putterill told the Observer the pockets of homes relying on Xplornet alone is a “known issue.”

“The thing that wasn’t known is that Xplornet was going to shut down so quickly,” Putterill said.

He believes Mascon wants to bring on new customers, but there isn’t a strong business case for connecting those pockets of homes to the existing network.

“I think what they’re running into right now is these properties are pretty cost-prohibitive for them to hook up,” he said. “Some grant money is going to have to be applied for by the ISP to expand their network.”

In the meantime, he said GwaiiTel is investigating other options, such as Starlink satellites being launched by SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk.

According to the Starlink website, it is targeting the provision of satellite internet service in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020, “rapidly expanding to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021.”

“We are starting to investigate it now,” Putterill said of the growing satellite constellation. “But I just don’t know yet if it’s going to be coming online on Haida Gwaii.”

Putterill emphasized that GwaiiTel’s mandate is to facilitate the delivery of affordable broadband internet services to customers on Haida Gwaii and satellite internet has nothing to do with their existing network. However, investigating satellite options for people on the islands does align with the vision of the non-profit, to “connect Haida Gwaii to the global community.”

“We’re more than happy to investigate these things and try to find a solution … and pass those on to the homeowners,” he said.

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Jeff Lavoie, owner of Gwaii Communications, said in 2017 that the more spread out the houses are, the costlier they are to connect.

As previously reported, running fibre-optic connections to Tlell could cost as much as $9,000, and connections would be costlier still for the few homes along Nadu Road and Highway 16.

The Observer has reached out to Mascon, SpaceX and Electoral Area D Director Johanne Young for comment.

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