Arctic fiber-optic cable could benefit far-flung Alaskans

TOKYO-LONDON: Polar melt allows route through northwest passage.

January 13, 2010 

Alaska Native corporations and a multinational firm are planning to build the first fiber-optic cable between Asia and Europe through the Arctic.

The project, estimated to cost roughly $1 billion, involves laying 10,000 miles of undersea fiber-optic cable from Tokyo, along the Alaska coast, through the Northwest Passage, past the southern coast of Greenland to London, company officials said Wednesday.

The cable would have two landing points in Alaska -- Dutch Harbor and Prudhoe Bay.

It would be a major gateway linking Alaska to the rest of the world, particularly to the Pacific Rim, said Walt Ebell, chief executive of the Kodiak Kenai Cable Co., one of the companies involved in the project.

He said the project is possible in large part because of the shrinking polar ice cap, which has spurred increased vessel traffic in the Arctic Ocean.

Though the Asia-to-Europe project will rely on private financing, KKC has already requested $350 million in federal stimulus grants and loans to lay undersea fiber along the Alaska coast, from Kodiak to Prudhoe Bay. Most of that Alaska line -- the portion from Dutch Harbor to Prudhoe -- would be part of the larger Asia-to-Europe cable that the company also is pursuing, executives said.

If the Alaska cable portion is funded and built, it could provide high-speed, reliable Internet to Bethel, Kotzebue, Nome and other communities. In the future, the network could be expanded to bring broadband Internet to 142 villages, company executives say.

For now, most rural Alaska communities rely on satellite-based Internet, which is expensive and sometimes transmits data to households and businesses even more slowly than a dial-up Internet connection.

"It's really, really slow," said Denise Michels, the mayor of Nome, one of 14 rural communities that have written letters in favor of the Kodiak Kenai Cable project.

She said high-speed Internet could create a lot of economic opportunities in her town and improved communication between local doctors and national medical experts. "It would be so great to be connected like the rest of the U.S.," she said.

The KKC funding request is still pending, but if it is rejected, the Asia-to-Europe project would still move forward, KKC executives said.

"That's a really ambitious project," said Alex Hills, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and consultant who has worked on Alaska telecommunications issues for decades. "If it happens, it can only help Alaska."

Hills said it is unclear when the Obama administration will announce more funding for rural high-speed Internet projects, but some projects could be funded this month and next month. The final grants will be awarded in September, he said.

So far, inquiries with potential users of the fiber-optic cable -- not just in Asia and Europe, but also in a vast area of the Arctic that includes military bases, scientific research stations and remote rural communities -- is showing a "very good" amount of interest, Ebell said.

A selling point for the Asia-to-Europe project is that an Arctic route would create faster, more secure data transmissions between the two continents -- about 50 percent faster than is currently possible, the executives said.

Ebell and others are presenting their project Sunday at the Pacific Telecommunications Council 2010 conference in Honolulu.

Roughly 100 people are already working on the project, a joint venture composed of KKC and a telecom subsidiary of Khanjee Holdings Inc., a multinational energy and infrastructure development firm with offices in Texas, Virginia, London, Qatar and Dubai.

KKC is owned by mostly by Old Harbor Native Corp., with Ouzinkie Native Corp. as a minority investor. They are Kodiak-area village corporations. KKC brings some telecom experience to the table: The company has laid fiber-optic cable between Kodiak, Kenai, Homer, Seward and Anchorage.

Together, KKC and Khanjee recently created the Arctic Cable Co., which would finance, design and build the cable. If Arctic Cable can line up customers and financing, construction would start next year and be done in 2013, Ebell said.

Ebell acknowledged that this would be a huge undertaking for Old Harbor, of which he is also chief executive. Besides the cables linking Kodiak to the mainland, the company owns commercial real estate in Anchorage and hotels at Denali National Park, plus it does federal 8(a) contracting. Annual company revenue is about $80 million, he said.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

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