Canadian telecom companies work to strengthen networks amid rising wildfires – National

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When wind-driven wildfires broke out on the Hawaiian island of Maui last summer, killing more than a hundred people and destroying thousands of buildings, a telecommunications outage left many residents in the dark.

The outage worsened an already devastating situation in areas such as the city of Lahaina, home to about 13,000 people, where both evacuation orders and emergency communications from first responders were hampered.

In addition to the loss of all cellphones and landlines in Lahaina, the area also experienced a loss of commercial electricity for days.

Authorities are still putting together the puzzles to understand how much went wrong during the incident. An important lesson has emerged from the Maui wildfires: resilient telecom networks are critical when a disaster strikes.

Companies and regulators in other jurisdictions, including Canada, are taking note of growing wildfires in remote areas.

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“We need to understand what the limitations of networks may be and also have plans that take into account the potential loss of our typical information sources,” said Jenifer Sunrise Winter, professor of communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“Ideally, you have multiple options in case something goes wrong.”

Last month, wildfire damage to fiber optic lines near Fort Nelson, B.C., caused days of cell and internet outages in the north of the province, as well as in Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

While telecom provider Northwestel worked to quickly restore service, the outage amplified the risks people in rural and remote parts of Canada face during natural disasters.

It’s an issue that Canada’s telecommunications regulator is well aware of. Two further consultations are underway that address this topic – one on ways to improve telecoms services in the Far North and another on how providers should inform customers of major service disruptions.

“The truth is that no network is flawless. Canada has some of the highest quality networks in the world, but predicting and preventing every potential failure is an impossible task,” said Adam Scott, vice-chairman of CRTC, speaking at a recent industry event in Toronto hosted by the Ivey Business School. .

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“At a time when our networks are becoming increasingly complex and the threats we face, including from extreme weather or malicious actors, are as volatile and unpredictable as ever before, the consequences of not being prepared are dire.”

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Click to play video: 'Hawaii wildfires: Flames engulf homes as West Maui residents are forced to flee'

Wildfires in Hawaii: Flames engulf homes as West Maui residents are forced to flee

Carriers focusing on AI and satellite solutions

Canada’s three largest providers say they have robust plans in place to mitigate the impact of wildfires on their infrastructure.

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Bell Canada, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. all tout several common elements of their strategies, such as examining grid stability year-round, having fuel-powered generators in key areas for electricity backup, and working with provincial emergency management teams.

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The companies have also worked on unique initiatives.

Through a partnership between Rogers and BC Wildfire Service, artificial intelligence cameras were installed on two of the airline’s BC towers in April, with plans to install three more.

The Pano AI cameras are designed to detect smoke up to a range of 15 miles, allowing firefighters to view live images of potential wildfire smoke and respond more quickly if necessary.

“Every minute counts,” said Aaron Pawlick, manager of strategic initiatives and innovation for BC Wildfire Service, in an interview.

“The sooner we can detect something… the better, because we can use that to send our resources to the scene faster.”

Satellite connectivity is also seen as a potential solution to keep customers connected during emergencies, especially in remote areas.

Telus announced last year that it had successfully trialled a technology that allows smartphones to send and receive voice calls and text messages via satellites. The test was conducted in collaboration with Montreal-based provider TerreStar Solutions Inc. and non-terrestrial network service provider Skylo.

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Rogers has partnered with SpaceX and Lynk Global to provide satellite-to-phone connectivity, while New Brunswick-based national internet provider Xplore Inc. committed last fall to providing satellite internet to remote locations following the launch of the Jupiter 3 satellite into space.

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“In an emergency, people see (satellite) as a great alternative or an unnecessary connection because you can literally take it with you,” said Rob McMahon, an associate professor of media and technology at the University of Alberta.

Fiber optic still ‘king’: Telus

McMahon pointed out the limitations of the “untested” satellite technology, including potential capacity issues compared to fiber.

“If more users come online, how will that degrade the service?” he said adding satellite technology is also still expensive for the average user.

Bell and Telus highlighted their growing fiber optic networks, with the former saying in a recent press release that they are “better resilient to extreme weather events, reducing the frequency and duration of weather-related outages.”

“Fiber is king,” said Phil Moore, Telus vice president for emergency response, during a presentation at last month’s Ivey Business School event.

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“We’ve had fiber optic lines where the poles at the bottom had burned out and they were actually flailing, and the network was still up. It is fine.”

Despite this progress, gaps remain when it comes to preparing Canada’s telecom sector for potential wildfire-related disruptions, McMahon said.

He pointed out the barriers faced by rural and remote regions, which often have limited infrastructure compared to more populated centers – in terms of road access in and out, as well as communication channels.

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Remote regions face redundancy shortages

McMahon said one of the biggest risks to emergency connectivity is the lack of “path diversity,” such as dual infrastructure or different technologies that can carry network connections in the event one line goes down.

That’s the case for the Western James Bay Telecom Network, a non-profit indigenous provider of fiber-optic internet to residents of Ontario’s James Bay coast, from Moosonee to Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat.

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“They rely on a single regional transportation network that goes up and down,” McMahon said.

“If that line is cut, the connection will be severed.”

Telus’ Moore said the industry standard is generally considered to have two transport routes to keep networks running in the event of an emergency.

“But it is a big country,” he said.

While Moore said Telus is “slowly” building a third route through Canada, he pointed out that Canadian telecommunications companies face challenges that their global counterparts do not. Chief among these is the cost of building networks in Canada, which is considered expensive compared to other major countries due to factors such as size, density and terrain.

But as wildfires have increased in recent years, Moore says Telus has also increased its spending on network resilience. That includes clearing vegetation around cell towers and other critical infrastructure in areas where dry conditions have led to a higher risk of fire spread.

“Investing in reliability is like buying insurance,” says Moore.

“Telecom is vulnerable, we all know that very well. No matter how much you invest in it, it is still vulnerable to all the different climatic hazards we encounter.”

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