Challenging Quintillion Cable Repair Complete
The grapnel hook that ultimately snagged the broken Quintillion cable, allowing it to be repaired.
The crew sent to fix the Quintillion undersea cable not far from Point Barrow encountered ice, difficult currents, and a brief food shortage in its effort to fix the vital fiber-optic link.
No Quick Fixes in the Arctic
When Quintillion technical consultant Frank Cuccio’s phone rang and his boss was calling at 4:30 am Alaska time, he knew something was wrong.
“I answered, ‘What’s up? Cable break?’ And that’s when this all started,” he says.
The Quintillion fiber optic cable spans 1,700 miles of the Alaska Arctic, including 505 miles of terrestrial fiber running from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks and 1,200 miles subsea miles from Nome to Prudhoe Bay. It also serves the communities of Nome, Point Hope, Kotzebue, Utqiaġvik, and Wainwright.
It was June 11, and ice scouring cut the cable about 55 miles north of Oliktok Point, 164 miles east-southeast of Point Barrow. Ice scouring occurs when icebergs or sea ice drag along the seabed floor.
Just Stick to the Plan
Cuccio was no stranger to this particular cable, as he was involved in the planning in 2015, installation in 2016, and seeing the service go online in 2017. That experience and knowledge would serve him well as the company’s on-site point person.
“It was a pretty big challenge,” he says. “I came in as the owner’s representative who knew the cable and how it should be prepared.”
The Integrity, a Polish ship with British submersible operators, Canadian mission specialists from International Telecom, a marine network installer, and a dive team from Alaska and California on board.
A diverse group of forty-four people lived on the 240-foot cable repair ship Integrity as the project was ongoing.
There were two protected-species observers, the Polish ship’s crew, British submersible operators, the Canadian mission specialists from International Telecom, and a dive team from Alaska and California.
“It was a pretty wonderful environment—cozy, not crowded,” Cuccio says.
The ship is homeported in Port Alberni, British Columbia during the cable repair season, from whence it traveled to Dutch Harbor, where Quintillion stows the full complement of spare cable equipment, before heading north. Once there, the ship sat off Wainwright for days waiting for the pack ice to clear so it could safely transit around Point Barrow to the cable repair grounds.
Meanwhile, residents of the North Slope and in Northwest Alaska communities were experiencing internet and cellphone outages. Quintillion leadership initially announced it would likely take between six and eight weeks for the cable to be repaired, later revising that to between nine and eleven weeks since pack ice was blocking the ship.
The crew aboard the Integrity get ready for dive operations.
At last, the ice moved off and the ship passed the ice choke point at Point Barrow. The shipboard power safety officer carefully coordinated the shipboard and shoreside activities to ensure the cable was safely handled at all times.
At the cable break location, the repair team deployed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to survey the seabed, but the water was too murky from turbulence for it to see anything.
Grapnels—small anchors with multiple hooks—of different sizes were deployed and dragged. The largest one successfully snagged and recovered the southern cable end.
“Locating the seaward cable end was the most challenging,” Cuccio says. “The cable was buried and repeated grapnel runs were unsuccessful, so I asked Quintillion for a sonar camera, which was flown to Prudhoe Bay and transferred by small vessel to the Integrity. The sonar camera was connected to the ROV, which enabled it to locate the cable on the seabed and ultimately recover the cable end. We formulated a repair strategy and stuck to it, but at times it felt frustrating. I had moments when I scratched my head and asked, ‘Am I doing anything wrong?’”
“The most satisfying moment was when the tension on the grapnel went from 3 to 16 tons,” he says. “At that point, we knew we had engaged the cable and would complete the repair. After successfully recovering the cable, the mission team got busy testing, splicing, and carefully placing the repaired cable back on the seabed.”
Three weeks had passed between the ship’s arrival time until the final splice was completed. The team spent most of that time trying to recover the broken northern end of the cable.
ROV jetting followed to bury the cable, and, for good measure, a dive team walked the seabed to inspect the cable and further improve burial depth using specialized jetting equipment. Cuccio says the seabed in the Arctic is a difficult and unforgiving blend of frozen clay mixed with rocks and gravel.
Dive operations mobilized from Prudhoe Bay and traveled to the site via a specially outfitted tug/barge, which was tied to the Integrity and held in position. For six consecutive days the weather held, a blessing for dive operations.
At one point, the larder getting bare, and Cuccio says he walked into breakfast to find a serving of hot dogs and baked beans. Just in the nick of time, three pallets of food stores arrived via supply boat and the entire crew formed a human chain to transfer everything to the galley storerooms. According to Cuccio, meal times were the center point of social activities and Chief Cook Lindsay did not disappoint, supporting the team with her jalapeno, bacon, and pecan cheesecakes.
It Takes as Long as It Takes
When Cuccio left New Jersey, he thought he’d be away a week or two at most, so he drove himself to the airport and parked his car in the long-term lot.
On his return, the attendant said they were close to towing him because he’d been gone for 46 days, handing him a bill for $1,732. He had missed birthdays, a wedding, a family reunion bike ride, and a date to see Bruce Springsteen.
Still, he remains upbeat about the time away.
“I’m glad we were successful, we learned a lot,” he says. “This is one to remember.”
And he is grateful for the support Quintillion provided.
“From start to completion, Quintillion gave me an awful lot of empowerment, saying, ‘What do you need to succeed?’ I felt very supported out there.”
Quintillion technical consultant Frank Cuccio stands on board the Integrity after the broken cable was successfully repaired.