Work under way to connect Arctic

Several northern communities should see more vessel traffic and infrastructure work this summer as construction of a new submarine fiber optic network continues.

Arctic Fibre is a Canadian entity building a new telecommunications network from Japan to Britain, with Anchorage company Quintillion partnering on the Alaska portion of the project, including landing spurs bringing the high-speed to connection directly to seven communities in Alaska.

Quintillion was formed in 2012 to take advantage of what CEO Elizabeth Pierce calls a rare opportunity for Alaska to develop telecommunications infrastructure — and with it the state’s economy.

Initially, Shemya, Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay will be connected to the new network. In time, Alaska telecoms could build out the network further, delivering faster service to more of the Arctic.

The project also includes a terrestrial cable line from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks.

When service is ready, likely in early 2016, half a dozen communities should have access to faster communication at a cheaper cost than they currently pay for satellite access.

Quintillion is supported by private investors, most of whom have not yet announced themselves publically, although Calista subsidiary Futaris has announced that it is investing in the project, and Pierce said the major investors have given other Alaska Native corporations an additional opportunity to invest in the project.

Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative provides phone and Internet service to several Arctic communities, including in the Quintillion landing points of Barrow, Wainwright, Point Hope and Kotzebue.

“It’s obviously a very, very exciting evolution and a rapid evolution for these markets,” said ASTAC manager of sales and business development Jens Laipenieks.

ASTAC is a member-owned cooperative, and has invested in the project. Laipenieks said the project should drive prices down throughout the region, based on the modeling the co-op has done so far. 

“The cost per bit will definitely come down from where we are with satellite,” Laipenieks said. 

This year, Quintillion and Arctic Fibre together will spend more than $60 million on the project, Pierce said.

Although Quintillion is responsible for the Alaska segment of the project, this summer’s work — and the network build planned for next summer — will be done by the two entities jointly.

“This summer, the plan is, complete all the survey work,” Pierce said.

The survey work includes marine surveys and geotechnical drilling. The marine surveys will help engineers determine the lowest-risk locations for landings by using sonar to map the sea floor along the Arctic Fibre route and to shore. The geotechnical drilling will sample the ground at each location to determine what equipment is needed when the cable is laid next summer. The project will use horizontal drilling, but the sampling will help engineers decide exactly how to lay the cable and create the bores for landings.

Afterward, contractors working on that component of the project can determine the exact length of the cable needed; the submarine cable will then be manufactured in New Hampshire and, if all goes as planned, installed next summer.

Other prepatory work will be done away from the project site — including shelters being built out in the Matanuska-Susitna area that will eventually be assembled at the landing sites in Wainwright, Point Hope and Barrow.

Permitting is also underway. Quintillion is working with Umiaq, a subsidiary of Barrow Native village corporation UIC, on the permitting process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the primary contact for permitting, although Quintillion is also working with dozens of entities to get approval, including the commissions that address various protected species, such as whales and walrus.

Quintillion will also apply for landing licenses from the Federal Communications Commission, likely this summer. Pierce said the company was waiting to apply until it had confirmed some of the project details through this summer’s survey work. Arctic Fibre already has the necessary licenses from the Canadian government.

Most of the work is done by various contractors, but Pierce herself is doing another aspect of the project: communicating with residents about what they’ll be seeing just offshore. 

Larger vessels will conduct the marine surveys on the main line, with up two operating along the coast at a time. Along the spur route — in the realm of 19 to 24 miles from shore to the main line near Barrow and Wainwright — three more small boats could be surveying and providing dive support, according to a briefing presented in those communities in May.

Pierce has been visiting various northern communities to talk about the planned work. Some will receive the original landings while others will not, but will still see the ships working just offshore, so Pierce said it’s important to share information about what’s going on.

The project has been well received, Pierce said.

“We’ve spent time with whaling captains, with the Mayors, with board members from various Native corporations and management teams and I would say that pretty consistently, there’s a great deal of enthusiasm for the project,” Pierce said. “People are anxious for the capacity and the capability that it brings.”

Quintillion is a carrier’s carrier. It will not directly sell service, but will sell to telecoms interested in using the capacity for its service, Pierce said. Any interested provider can access the new network, she said.

That decision was made in part as a way to recoup the investment — the hope is that open access will help grow demand, and create more revenue over the long term — but also as a way to stimulate Alaska’s economy. Pierce said the project should provide capabilities for business growth within the communities.

Local providers in each of the landing point communities are planning to use the new network, and there are $50 million in first-year contracted revenues in Alaska so far, Pierce said.

Eventually, Alaska telecoms could build the network out beyond the planned communities. 

Pierce said that’s phase two of the project, and Quintillion is working with TelAlaska, ASTAC and others on those plans.

Once there’s service in Nome, a company could spend about $14 million to build fiber optic out to Teller, about 73 miles west of Nome, she said. From there, it creates a jumping off point to build out to Brevig Mission or Port Clarence, Pierce said.

Laipenieks said ASTAC is also looking at how it will expand the network. 

The landing point communities are mostly ready for the new service to be turned on, Laipenieks said. Quintillion will build all the way into the landing communities, and the local networks are situated well for an upgrade in capacity. 

“We have been preparing the network for the evolutionary step,” he said, and will see enhanced internet as soon as possible, with plans to also upgrade wireless services to 3G and 4G LTE speeds.

The co-op is also evaluating the possibility of building out fiber or microwave to the other communities it serves, both along the coast, and farther south, such as Anaktuvak Pass.

Beyond the technical buildouts, Laipenieks said he’s interested to see how communities use the services when speeds suddenly spike and latency drops.

“This is a bit of a petri dish for how broadband will stimulate things,” he said, referring to the likely increase in use of the internet for entertainment, as well as enhancements to health care and education, and possible new businesses that could crop up. 

“For me that’s going to be the interesting piece, to see how quickly things evolve,” Laipenieks said.

In Barrow, Pierce said the hospital will benefit from having fast enough speeds that it can actually use some of the high-tech equipment intended for remote-maintenance or to send out images produced by the CT machine, rather than sending patients out to have the CT done where it can also be read.

“It really is about the difference it makes to people’s lives,” she said.

 

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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