Connecting beneath the ice
As telecoms operators look for new routes with lower latencies, the idea of a cable running through the Arctic to connect west to east is being revisited. Quintillion’s Fiber System and the hotly anticipated Artic Connect are leading the way in the region.
Global warming has meant that the once impossible task of laying a cable in the harsh, wintery landscape of the Arctic has now became feasible. Because of its central geographic location between Europe, Asia and the US, it is the perfect place to build cables connecting the various regions with the lowest possible latency. The warming oceans and the ever -increasing demand for capacity is forcing telcos back into the meeting rooms to make these projects happen.
“The number of subsea cable projects are increasing all over the world due to increasing need for broadband and higher capacity.” says Joseph Westerlund, sales manager at Nexans’ submarine telecom and special cables unit, a provider of cabling and connectivity solutions.
“As the Arctic sea ice declines due to global warming, it opens new opportunities to build shorter fibre links between continents. Such northern cable routes would allow the reinforcement of the existing subsea network and the reduction of the lag in transmission between different parts of the world, such as China and Europe, for instance.”
The Quintillion Fiber System
Anchorage-based private cable operator Quintillion took on the challenge with the construction of its Quintillion Fiber System, a 15,000km cable linking Europe and Asia to the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. More specifically, Japan to Alaska, then onto Canada and then London, with a connecting branch to Quintillion’s existing system on to the US.
“We started in 2014, with a series of surveys that mapped the sea floor and told us where to bury the cables so we could protect it for the life of the cables, which is at least 25 years,” says Kristina Woolston, Quintillion’s vice president of external relations.
In addition to the subsea side of the network, Quintillion’s footprint also includes 249 miles new terrestrial fibre connecting Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to the company’s existing terrestrial network in Fairbanks.
As the one of the subsea leaders in the area, Quintillion has become somewhat an expert at deploying networks in hostile and Arctic conditions, but that doesn’t mean the project hasn’t come with its share of challenges. Speaking about phase three of the build into Europe Woolston says: “As we look to extend the network towards Europe, the longer icy season is going to be significant for us. That will be a long and challenging build,” adding that “you can’t predict the weather, can’t predict the ice.”
This sentiment was echoed by Javier Héctor Lloret, senior strategic sourcing manager of submarine cables at BICS. “Undertaking subsea cabling projects in the Arctic presents two unique challenges. Firstly, ice masses can cause damage near the shore section of a submarine cable if it’s not properly protected,” Lloret explains.
As a communications enabler, BICS leverages its investments in more than 20 submarine cables, including AAE-1, EIG, BBG, SEA-ME-WE-5, WACS, SAT-3/SAFE, EASSy, SEA-ME-WE-4, SEA-ME-WE-3, to serve its footprint of more than 120 points of presence worldwide.
But he says that this can be solved by horizontal directional drilling where the cable route is directly bored from the landing point to an exit at a suitable water depth.
“Burying the cable deep beneath the sea floor minimises the risks present in aggressive shore environments. These include ice masses which score the sea floor and could easily damage a cable buried at a shallower depth.”
Woolston says that during the Quintillions build in 2017, they checked every inch of our burial along the route and “laid down concrete to reinforce the installation and further protect the branch unit.”
The second challenge according to Lloret is the window of time during which cables can be laid and maintained in the Arctic region.
“If a cable is cut or damaged during the non-navigable season, it wouldn’t be possible to repair it until the ice melts again. A cable cut happening during the non-navigable season could potentially require a very long time to be repaired on these routes.”
No matter how big the challenge, according to Woolston the Alaskan community is in need of the system pointing out that until the first phase was build all connectivity was offered over microwave and satellite.
“These communities were ready,” explains Woolston. “They’d never had broadband for the most part. It’s a challenge to recruit, maintain and train the local community. Many even struggle with keeping good teachers because they don’t have the ability to engage with them. Our communities don’t have colleges, and even rely on outside experts to provide medical support and service. We rely on outside services more than many other places.”
Adding his thoughts on Arctic cables Westerlund says: “Connecting remote areas in the Arctic to broadband is also an important tool in building digital bridges between people and communities, enabling improved health, educational services and empowering local business.”
The demand, according to Woolston, is there and once build the system will create unprecedented opportunities for businesses and the like in the region.
“It’s a great opportunity for small businesses to optimise their offering with global connectivity. It won’t happen overnight, but we’ve heard from businesses locally that they’re so excited. There are infrastructure possibilities that would not have happened were it not for fibre in these communities,” adds Woolston. She is particularly keen on future opportunities with OTTs in the area once completed and “through a lot of engagement,” she says.
On the question of whether or not the cable will connect at a cable landing station or directly into a data centre, Woolston says that it will most likely be a data centre as the project progresses and that Quintillion are considering the potential of an Arctic data centre of its own.
Phase 2 of the project is right on course with construction due to begin in 2019 and an estimated completion set for 2020.
“That phase does not have the same limitation and timing,” explains Woolston. “We don’t have to worry about the ice as much. So we can be more flexible at utilising the entire calendar.”
As for phase three, she says that it is “moving equally as aggressively to phase three, in a major path for our network and the possibility of an Arctic data centre” though no dates have yet been given.
Following in similar steps of Quintillion most recently a new project is running the Arctic gauntlet. Arctic Connect is an 18,000km system still in development stages that will connect the west coast of the US to China, Japan, Bering Strait, Norway, Germany and Finland. Once built, the $700 million cable will offer capacity of between 10 to 44Tbs per fibre pair, with a total of 6-8 fibre pairs and branching units to connect various landing points along its route.
The cable is to be built by Cinia - a Finnish designer, builder and operator of intelligent network solutions. Speaking to Ari-Jussi Knaapila, president and CEO of Cinia he was keen to clarify that the project has yet to be given the green-light and at this stage would rather describe it as an initiative.
He explains: “I would say it’s probably bit too early to call it a project, because a project normally has a plan, a budget, schedule an objective and so on, I would rather call it an initiative because there is a lot of interest a lot of pre-planning done but there hasn’t been any decisions made for the final investment or even the first phase.”
The project has received particularly strong support from the Finnish government who undoubtedly see a number of economic benefits for the country should the cable be built. Sharing her thoughts on the governmental involvement in the project, Suvi Lindén, the former Finnish Minister of Communications and current chair of NxtVn Finland says that although the cable has been talked about for a number of years the timing and the business model for it wasn’t right but now they are.
“The cable is of big interest to Finland because the cable has the shortest route from Asia to Europe through Finland. The Finnish government sees great opportunities.”
Though one of those opportunities would of course be economic, Lindén is more excited about the possibility of building a connectivity hub akin to the likes of Marseille, Frankfurt or London.
“We would want to see some of the data land and be stored in Finland and these days Finland could offer a lot of talent and knowledge on data analytics and these kinds of unique services. The opportunity to offload a number of ICT services and create data centre campuses is an attractive proposition because there are ideal conditions to store data here -cool weather, low electricity prices, stability and security. On the business side we would like to see that some of the Asian companies would come and land in Finland.”
“At the same time the entire global telecommunications market as a whole would benefit because there would be a new faster route connecting northern Europe to northern Asia much faster than existing routes,” adds Knaapila.
Cinia estimates that the new northern connection between Europe and Asia would bring 25-40% decrease in latency compared to the traditional southern route.
Just like Quintillion and its fibre system, Arctic Connect must also navigate extremely cold environments that create a number of different issues. But Lindén says there is are few benefits that come from building in this area and that’s the smaller risk of human damage caused to the cable.
“Once the cable is built and the weather freezes over again there’s actually a lower risk of it being damaged because nothing can get to it. So in way there’s a higher risk when there’s no ice,” says Lindén.
“Navigation activity is fairly low in those, so the risk of navigation-related damage to a cable is also very low – or zero in the non-navigable season, adds Lloret. “However, this only applies to shallow water depths. The whole of the cable route, including deep waters, is also subject to the same risks as any other submarine cable.”
Interestingly Knaapila says that it’s the Russian side of the cable that poses the biggest challenge in his opinion.
“I would say the biggest challenge is permitting from the Russian side, because we’re talking about mainly using the Russian EEZ (exclusive economic zone) regions,” he explains.
“We need to make sure we have people at the highest levels in Russia giving it the thumbs up to ensure it’s not seen a security threat and only the business cable that it is.”
In keeping with Lindén’s hope that Finland will become a hub because of the Arctic Connect cable, she says that the Finnish government plans on adding a terrestrial fibre route and building out its infrastructure in the country to support this initiative.
“We’re now working on creating the best conditions for this Arctic cable because the connectivity is one of the most important things. We have a real opportunity to create hubs at these landing points,” she says.
Knaapila agree saying that “the building of data centres in the Arctic region is one of the more exciting opportunities to come from this cable“. Adding that “we’re actively looking for Russian companies to participate and investigate what kind of requirements are needed on the Russian coastline.”
Data demands in telecoms is growing at a rate of approximately 30-40% says Knaapila, and the growing data increase coming from Asia only adds to the business case of the cable according to Lindén.
“Business viability is the most important thing to first consider with this cable and part of that is the fact that there a lots of data transfer from Asia to Europe,” she says.
In the future Lindén hopes that OTTS in particular will be drawn to buy capacity on the route.
Given the close proximity to each other and the need for the Arctic Connect initiative to learn from the Quintillion project it seem obvious that some kind of partnership or collaboration between the two needs to happen.
“We know the team, and we are in the same circles,” says Woolston. Our network has been designated by the US government as critical infrastructure. As part of that, we have some requirements that deal with national security and who our partners are, and so it is important to us to maintain within the guidelines – understanding we’ll be building an international connection,” she says, adding that “We can’t say we wouldn’t engage with them but for now we’re moving independently.”
Lindén however, seems to think that the two are further along in their negotiations with even the potential of working together jointly on the next phase of Quintillion’s Fiber System.
“From what I understand they were involved in some very interesting conversations in Hokkaido during the broadband summit in June. I think there’s a lot of possibilities to operate collaboratively on Quintillion’s phase 2, which goes to Japan and China with Arctic Connect. Working together in this area makes the most sense, because having more cables in the Arctic area is the common goal for both.”