Fiber-optic Internet service project for northern, western Alaska delayed

Backers of an ambitious project to build a fiber-optic cable between England and Japan beneath Arctic waters -- and in the process bring high-speed Internet to remote corners of Western Alaska -- say the undertaking has seen delays that will push the arrival of service back until at least 2016.

Canadian telecommunications company Arctic Fibre is running the cable, while Anchorage-based Quintillion Networks is the "middle mile" provider creating several spur lines that would connect the ultrafast cable to telecom companies in Nome, Kotzebue and other communities along the Bering Strait coast and the North Slope.

Colloquially referred to as the "Arctic fiber" project, it promises to bring "gigabit Internet" to the most remote parts of Western Alaska. Quintillion expects speeds of 100 gigabits per second from the fiber line; current consumer broadband in Nome and Barrow reaches speeds of up to 6 megabits per second, equal to .006 gigabits per second.

During a May visit to Nome, Quintillion CEO Elizabeth Pierce said the cable would be built this winter and start being laid during summer 2015. But now the prep work for the undersea fiber line and the buildout of a terrestrial component to Quintillion's planned network are seeing adjustments to their schedules.

For the $650 million Arctic fiber line, Pierce said mapping and surveys began this summer and will continue into summer 2015, with onshore landing sites set to be constructed this winter. But she said that is "a small amount of work" compared to the next phase of the project.

"The major work, the horizontal directional drilling from the shoreline to the spurs — and that's again to get those spurs coming into the shore buried deep and out of harm's way — that will happen next summer. Then the cable will be laid once those ... boards are completed for the spur lines."

But that undersea Arctic cable to Japan is only one part of Quintillion's plan. The company is also tapping into an overland cable set to run from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope down along the Dalton Highway and into Fairbanks and Anchorage. That part of the project, now being built by AT&T, has faced several delays.

Until either that land line is built or the cable to Japan is laid, Pierce said, it's a waiting game.

"Our in-service date will be the earlier of whichever one of those connections come into service ...," she said. "Either way, it's going to be later into 2016 before we can turn up service."

Regardless of which connection comes online first, Pierce said, the plan remains unchanged, and Quintillion will complete both the undersea and overland cable. But only when the undersea cable is complete will the promise of ultrafast broadband be delivered to Bering Strait communities.

While that date for service may be a moving target, it's not changing any plans of Western Alaska telecoms preparing to bring Quintillion's spur lines the final mile into homes and businesses.

TelAlaska CEO Dave Goggins said the company is still on board to bring the fiber line to Nome.

Steve Merriam, the CEO of the Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, said the co-op worked with Quintillion this summer to build $4.5 million worth of communication shelters in Wainwright, Point Hope and Barrow. Merriam said his company is confident enough in the project that they're laying out serious money to get ready.

The project "definitely has legs," Merriam said.