The less-frozen north starts new cable projects

14 July 2016 | Alan Burkitt-Gray


The Arctic sea ice is melting more than ever. That gives subsea cable projects in Alaska and northern Canada new opportunities, writes Alan Burkitt-Gray

In the cold waters around Alaska, a long-dreamed-of project is just starting up. The first stage is underway in a subsea cable that – if plans and funds go well – will link carrier networks in Japan, China, Russia, North America and Europe by the shortest, most direct route.

Kristina Woolston, vice president of external affairs for Quintillion Subsea, the company behind the project, told Alaskan media in late June that work will start at the beginning of July. The company is starting earlier than it expected, “because we have a vessel available and we also have some great open water”. 

Pick up a schoolroom globe of the world and look at the area round the North Pole. On a normal flat map projection the Arctic stretches all the way along the top, as long as the equator; in reality, Scandinavia, Siberia and northern Canada cluster around the shores of the Arctic Ocean. 

The difficulty is that for centuries the Arctic has been frozen year-round. One of the consequences of global warming is that the waters are becoming freer of ice, especially in August and September, after a summer of 24-hour-long sunshine.Quintillion

According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, based in Colorado, June 2016 had 12.8% less Arctic ice than the average June from 1981 to 2010. That’s given the opportunity to the first pioneers keen to exploit the potential navigability of Arctic waters. 

There have been ventures, or at least projects, before. In Russia the Polarnet project has made occasional appearances over the past five or six years. In 2013 Capacity reported that it had received the backing of the Russian federal telecoms ministry. Since then, however, it appears to have disappeared back under the ice.

In Canada, the Toronto-based Arctic Fibre project dates back almost as long, and seemed to suffer a similar fate until a company in the US state of Alaska, Quintillion, took it over.

Alaska’s main interest, frankly, is not linking Japan to northern Europe via the Arctic Ocean. For decades the north slope of the state has been an important oil production centre. Arctic Fibre wants to connect Prudhoe Bay, at the heart of the north slope, with Nome in the west, with spurs to other coastal communities.

The founding shareholders of Arctic Fibre hold a stake in Quintillion and Michael Cunningham, the CEO of Arctic Fibre, has joined the board of Quintillion. Cooper Investment Partners, a New York-based private investment firm, is the majority investor in Quintillion.

At the same time as work on phase one has started, an associate company is building an overland cable running from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Fairbanks in the south, to with onward connections along the US west coast.

The Alaska subsea cable has three fibre pairs, and one pair is reserved for the projected eastern and western extensions to Japan and Europe. Each pair will be able to carry 100Gbps on each wavelength.

Phase two is projected to run westwards from Nome, the end point of phase one, to Tokyo. The next phase, though, will be the most ambitious: it calls for a cable to be looped along the normally frozen straits between the islands of northern Canada. It will run along the North-west Passage through the Hudson Strait and enter the Atlantic to the south of Greenland, before crossing to Europe. Plans call for the cable to land in the south-west of the UK.

Ironically, Prudhoe Bay is named after a British explorer and naval commander who accompanied John Franklin in an early hunt for a sea route north of Canada; Franklin and his crew died in a later attempt.

The subsea route round Alaska and the terrestrial link across the state are both due for completion in early 2017, says Quintillion. No dates have yet been put on the Japanese leg or the Canadian-European leg. 

Meanwhile, though, in north-eastern Canada another project is emerging: Nuvitik Cable wants to connect remote communities with the 151 Front Street hub in Toronto, using a 20,000km dual ring. It’s an area with few roads, so subsea cables between the islands will help bring yet more poorly-connected people into the internet world.