Connected Coast project leads request extension to 2023

A map shows the planned route of the Connected Coast fibre-optic cable.

Islanders struggling with slower internet speeds amid pandemic

Haida Gwaii residents who have been struggling with connectivity issues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will not be saved by the Connected Coast project any time soon.

According to an email sent by Joshua McLeod, the constituency assistant for North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice, project leads CityWest and the Strathcona Regional District have formally requested an extension from March 2021 to March 2023.

The $45.5 million government-funded project to install a new sub-sea backbone transport cable along the west coast of B.C. was approved in January 2018. However, CityWest, the project lead for the north, only sent out a request for proposal (RFP) for project design and a construction contractor on Aug. 28.

The RFP is on the BC Bid website, with a closing date of Sept. 8. After the RFP closes, Chris Armstrong, director of marketing for CityWest, told the Observer the company will immediately start the permitting process so they can be “in the water by next summer.”

Asked about the delay, Armstrong said “this is a complex project with many stakeholders involved, and in many ways it is the first of its kind.”

He also said CityWest underwent a CEO transition and “wanted a new CEO in place before continuing with the project.”

The departure of former CEO Chris Marett was announced in January and Armstrong said the new CEO, Stefan Woloszyn, had his first day on the job on Aug. 10.

In the meantime, islanders are saying a pandemic-induced overload on the internet has compounded their existing connectivity issues.

Queen Charlotte resident Tracy Gilson, who works remotely for a neurologist, told the Observer her Mascon connection has recently been “very frustrating.”

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

Gilson said she routinely has to check and redo tasks during her work day, such as making sure emails to patients were successfully sent.

“Sometimes they don’t go through because of the internet,” she said. “It’s really stressful when you have to send things to people on a timeline.”

After putting in extra hours to complete her required tasks, Gilson said she would like to be able to go online and enjoy videos or music to de-stress, but, “sometimes you can’t even load any social media. It’s just spinning and spinning.”

“For people who are in quarantine … they should be able to access their service. It’s really important for mental health right now,” she said.

“Frustrating” was also the word used by Old Massett resident Kun Kayangas Marlene Liddle when describing her connectivity issues as of late.

Liddle told the Observer she invested in a TELUS Smart Hub about two years ago and her service has become significantly worse since the pandemic started.

“It might have to do more with COVID and everybody on it,” she said.

Despite paying for the 500 GB monthly data plan, which according to the TELUS website costs $80 a month after the first year, she said she often opts to use cellular data on her phone to complete important tasks such as online banking, rather than risk her unpredictable WiFi connection.

“It’s become worse recently probably within the last three months,” she said. “To not be able to watch a movie … seems to be pretty bad.”

Liddle’s unreliable internet connection has also impacted her online security, she added.

As a weaver of red and yellow cedar bark, she often has grant applications to fill out, but because she gets “timed out,” she has been forced to ask a friend in Vancouver to submit applications on her behalf.

“That means I have to give her passwords,” she said. “This is a good case of why our capacity needs to be increased and our speed.”