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‘Arctic Fiber’ Project Delayed into 2016

Both the subsea Arctic cable, and a terrestrial cable along the Dalton Highway, are seeing delays that could push the rollout of Quintillion's ultrafast broadband network in rural Alaska to 2016 or beyond. Image: Quintillion Networks.

The 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 undersea cable, while Anchorage-based Quintillion Networks is the “middle mile” provider creating several spur lines that would shoot off the main fiber backbone and 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 reach speeds 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 itself would be built this winter and start being laid during the summer of 2015. But now both 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 the summer of 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 shore line 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 in to an overland cable set to run from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, down along the Dalton Highway, and on 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, whether it’s the Dalton Highway first, AT&T’s build, or whether it’s our connection to Japan first,” she said. “Whichever one of those comes in first, that’s when we’ll be able to turn up service. 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 would 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 the local western Alaska telecoms preparing to bring Quintillion’s spur lines the final mile into homes and businesses.

A detailed view of landing sites and spurs in northwest Alaska planned for the Arctic Fibre project. Image: Quintillion Networks.
A detailed view of landing sites and spurs in northwest Alaska planned for the Arctic Fibre project. Image: Quintillion Networks.

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’s confident enough in the project that they’re laying out serious money to get ready.

The project “definitely has legs,” Merriam said. “We’ve got about a $16 million RUS loan in process to upgrade our facilities on shore to take advantage of the fiber connectivity,” he said, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services’ loan program. The program provides what Merriam described as “low-interest” loans for electrical, sewer/water, and telecommunication projects in rural areas.

“I’ll tell you this, putting in an RUS loan is not a small undertaking,” he said. “It is very, very tedious and very tenuous, and it takes an incredible amount of time. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think this was a go.”

Having already missed targeted in-service dates of 2014 and 2015, and now delayed into 2016, just when the project will “go”—and if it will go first through the terrestrial line or the undersea cable—are all questions that can only be answered as each part of the project inches forward.

No matter how fast the fiber promises to be, the process of getting it built can seem painfully slow to many in western Alaska.

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