Later this year, six rural communities along Alaska’s west coast will gain access to higher-speed broadband internet. That’s thanks to a project that saw more than 1,600km (1,000 miles) of fiber-optic cable laid beneath the seabed by a dozen ships last summer.
Quintillion, an Alaskan telecommunications company backed by one of the world’s richest men, Len Blavatnik, is behind the project. Its initial plans are to string fiber along Alaska’s coast, connecting Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Utqiagvik and Prudhoe Bay. Internet service provided by the line should be considerably faster and more reliable than the existing services provided by microwave towers or satellites.
In future, the company sees its fiber-optic cable connecting to communities in Canada’s eastern Arctic, in an effort to stretch undersea cables between Asia and Europe – potentially providing an edge in high-speed financial transactions.
Arctic Deeply spoke with Kristina Woolston, Quintillion’s vice-president of external relations, about the need for better internet in the Arctic, the challenges of connecting remote communities and how Quintillion is trying to meet them.
Arctic Deeply: Why has your company, Quintillion, tackled the challenge of bringing broadband and internet to rural Alaska?
Kristina Woolston: The project is anchored in Alaska and we’re Alaskans as the management team. Quintillion has been in Alaska for many, many years. I’m originally from a rural community in southwest Alaska, and so we understand and appreciate the challenges of rural communities lacking basic infrastructure, like roads – the majority of Alaska is not connected by physical roads. Telecommunications is another challenge that has really created a barrier to entry in this global marketplace.
We’re engaged in a global market now: there is nothing that is truly remote any more, unless you are constricted by the bounds of telecommunications.
You have healthcare systems that have these multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment in hospitals that have state-of-the-art telehealth equipment, but they lack the broadband connection to sufficiently utilize these pieces of equipment. You have schools that are unable to download the school-wide testing on an annual basis, and the state requires that the testing be submitted electronically. So you have some real barriers to critical components to a local economy – that’s education and health, and the other is just to maintain their place in the global marketplace as the world becomes more connected.
Arctic Deeply: I had not even thought about things like school testing.
Woolston: Most communities are based on satellite and microwave infrastructure, which is limited in capacity. It is also often interrupted by weather or other environmental outages. It is physically demanding to maintain and operate these systems. Often it’s on a remote mountaintop and you have to use a helicopter or snow machine to access them. So the cost of operating and maintaining those systems over time is quite high. In the economics of fiber optics, the up-front cost is more, but it is coming down over time as technology and installation techniques are improved. When we design the system it is to install and construct it in a such a manner that we hope to never touch this fiber system again because it is so well protected and so well installed that it truly is there, in place, for the lifetime of its service.
Arctic Deeply: That’s a big goal. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Woolston: We’re dealing with a number of factors: in Alaska we work closely with co-management groups for installation. Marine mammal migration and subsistence activities are prevalent in a significant portion of our culture, and we take that into consideration during construction. We also have to consider activities in different communities.
Fairbanks really connects to the global internet through the Pacific Northwest. Quintillion’s initial connection and anchoring of the system is really right there, and so we built from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. The construction of [phase one] is complete except for that critical connection of the branching line into Prudhoe Bay. For that one straight segment from the main trunkline into Prudhoe Bay we did not accomplish the burial that we needed last summer. We had, at any given time, 12 to 13 vessels in the water last summer to do the sub-sea installation.
We start with a fiber-optic cable that is highly protected and highly reinforced. The fiber-optic strands themselves are quite sensitive and quite delicate; however, the protective layers of the cable are actually quite resilient and quite sturdy. There are multiple layers of sheeting and protection, and then it is surrounded in a water-resistant and pressure-resistant poly membrane, which stands up to about 1,000 psi. Then we take that sturdy fiber and we install it by burying the cable.
Here’s the most important part. Ice scouring or ice shearing is a natural phenomenon that occurs in spring when the ice layer is breaking up. They call it the mixing bowl off the North Slope area because of the pieces of ice that start to move around when the ice starts moving in the spring – sometimes the ice will fold on top of itself and scour or bump along the seafloor. We did two years of geotechnical and geophysical surveying along that entire fiber route, and determined the deepest scouring over time, but we couldn’t tell if it was 10,000 years or 10 years old. So our method is to go deeper than any ice scouring regardless of the timeline in which it occurred.
Arctic Deeply: How does that compare with the broadband that people in the lower 48 states or in major metropolitan areas might have?
Woolston: The services that we will be providing will be comparable in capacity to any major metropolitan area. So when we talk about 30 terabits/second, that is roughly 2,500 high-definition movies downloaded in a second. That is a way we can wrap our head around it as consumers, but it translates immediately to “What can my business, my school, my healthcare facility do with that type of capacity?”
Arctic Deeply: Last year, Alaska Dispatch News reported that this project “would significantly shave trading times between stock markets in Europe and Asia and presumably make subscription a must for financial institutions and high-speed traders, who operate in a world where milliseconds can be worth millions.” Is this where much of the financing will come from?
Woolston: Each of the three segments, they stand on their own, financially. Each phase has its own market research and its own financial feasibility in terms of the build. There are more users on those bookends of the project build, in Europe and Asia, but each of the segments has its own financial feasibility to consider. Certainly, the global market is important, and connecting those two markets is important. But so is creating a diverse path out of North America in Alaska and in northern Canada.
Consider Alaska – technology companies, other major businesses, they won’t necessarily consider building or extending their headquarters or setting up shop in a location that does not have a diverse telecommunications route. At the time that we are able to connect from Alaska to Asia, that will be a critical diverse communication network out of the United States and the Arctic.
Arctic Deeply: Can you give an example of how you used local community knowledge?
Woolston: The perfect example is considering the ice shearing. We employed many scientists out there that knew about ice scouring and ice shearing, but we relied on a lot of the local knowledge to look at timing and to look at their experiences and the history of the ice over time. Those are critical pieces of information that we rely on, with our local advisers, with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission; these are all critical relationships that we have in the communities, and they provide valuable information for the project.
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