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Project to bring lightning-fast Internet to remote Arctic advances

Alex DeMarban
Courtesy Arctic Fibre

A project calling for a transoceanic fiber-optic cable running through the Arctic between Japan and the United Kingdom -- one that could also lead to higher Internet speeds and capacity across much of Alaska -- is taking steps to secure landing licenses to tie into portions of Alaska and Canada.

The Canadian company driving the 9,500-mile main line, Arctic Fibre Inc., has applied with regulators in that country for landing licenses, according to a press release from Arctic Fibre. Seven landing points have been selected in the Canadian Arctic, including Cambridge Bay.  

Meanwhile, the Alaska affiliate for the project, Quintillion Networks, has finished conducting preliminary surveys to determine the location of landing sites in the 49th state. So far, spurs off the main line are planned for the oil-field facilities at Prudhoe Bay atop Alaska, the U.S. Air Force base at Shemya in the Aleutian Islands, as well as the villages of Barrow, Wainwright, Kotzebue, Nome, and possibly Unalaska, a statement said.

The remote Alaska villages currently receive slow, unreliable Internet over clunky satellite. If the project comes to fruition, that capacity would improve dramatically. Cell phone service on a fiber-optic backbone could leap from sluggish 2G to speedier 4G, and improvements could come in key areas, including to telemedicine that is practiced in villages without doctors, and to distance education offered in communities without professors.  

Quintillion plans to submit applications for landing licenses to federal and state regulators in the first six months of 2014.

Technical engineers have been studying site landings for Quintillion, said Elizabeth Pierce, CEO of Quintillion. To reach the main fiber-optic line, the company plans to drill horizontally from land, extending a spur 15 feet beneath the sea floor.

"It allows us to take the fiber much deeper than trenching would to protect against risks like ice scouring, ship traffic, or Nome gold miners," Pierce said.

A planned marine survey of the route around Alaska and Canada experienced delays this summer because of excess sea ice, said Pierce. That effort -- to determine things like sea floor conditions -- will be conducted next summer, she said.

Among other challenges are changes to the Universal Service Fund -- a federal subsidy that helps telecommunications companies provide service in remote, costly areas like rural Alaska. Reductions to the subsidy could hurt companies such as Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, a small telecom serving Barrow and other Arctic communities, and threaten their ability to tap into the line.  

As for the overall project, the Alaska and Canadian segments will be completed by January 2016, the Arctic Fibre release said. Arctic Fibre plans to operate as a wholesaler, selling bandwidth to Internet Service Providers and cable TV and telecommunication companies. It will not directly provide service to end-users, except perhaps to governments and large developers.

A key landing station in Canada will be at Cambridge Bay, adjacent to the Department of National Defense facility. "It will be well-positioned to meet the substantial bandwidth requirements of the scientists who will be stationed at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS)," the statement said.

The Nunavut Planning Commission said the Canadian portion of the project complies with its planning requirements. 

The project has qualified for an exemption from further environmental impact screening by the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. 

Though most of the line will run on the ocean floor, part of it will run across the Boothia Peninsula in Canada. To make that happen, Arctic Fibre will submit its application to the Kitikmeot Inuit Association this week for land-based easements. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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