Satellites to the Rescue After Arctic Fiber Break
Communities along Alaska’s Arctic coast have come to depend on an offshore fiber optic cable for modern digital connectivity. That dependence can be a liability, however, as demonstrated by a freak accident.
In early June, sea ice scouring along the Arctic Ocean bottom approximately 34 miles north of Oliktok Point cut Quintillion’s fiber optic cable. All along its coastal route, internet and cellphone service dropped out in Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Utqiaġvik, and inland at Atqasuk.
According to Quintillion, the cable is buried 13 feet under the ocean floor in water about 90 feet deep. The company noted in a press release that the Arctic Ocean is still frozen over, so it could not predict when the cable can be fixed.
“The Integrity cable repair ship is currently on its way to Vancouver, but it is not ice-strengthened and requires the ice to dissipate before reaching the repair location,” the Quintillion statement continued. “The anticipated arrival of the vessel is in the first week of August, contingent upon favorable weather and ice conditions.”
Quintillion also reported, “We have identified available ice-strengthened vessels that could be mobilized and outfitted with cable repair equipment and personnel necessary to complete the repair in the presence of sea ice. These alternatives will be further developed in parallel with the contracted marine maintenance vessel.”
On June 14, Acting North Slope Borough Mayor Scott Szmyd declared an emergency, stating that “loss of these communication services will severely impact the ability to respond to provide municipal emergency services, such as search and rescue, police, fire, and utilities.”
As Facebook friends saw residents’ pages drop off because of the cut in service, governing bodies in the area quickly gathered other resources to fill in.
“The North Slope Borough has ordered twenty-five Starlink units to be deployed in affected villages, and the state ordered seventy-five,” says Nagruk Harcharek, president of the regional nonprofit Voice of Arctic Iñupiat.
Starlink is a satellite constellation operated by SpaceX. The aerospace company has launched 4,000 of the planned 12,000 satellites since 2019, and service is rolling out country by country. Residential services in the United States are mostly available near the Canadian border, due to satellite coverage. Customers in Alaska began installing Starlink receivers last November, and retailers experienced a boom in demand as soon as the cable was cut.
Harcharek points out that facilities like Iḷisaġvik College and several North Slope schools that already had Starlink saw no disruption in service. He acknowledges that the emergency will undoubtedly boost the brand.
In addition to cutting-edge technology, communities also turned to an older form of inter-city communication: VHF radio, which was once the only long-range link in the Arctic.
While the ATM at Wells Fargo bank in Utqiaġvik worked for withdrawals, for a short time the town’s only gas station and some stores could only accept cash. The Stuaqpak Quick Stop could only accept hard currency while the larger Stuaqpak supermarket, with its Starlink installed, continued processing credit cards as usual.
More urgently, “The emergency 911 system was down,” says Harcharek. “There was no way to dispatch people in those villages.”
Thanks to GCI, that problem was rectified, he says. GCI transferred some service to satellite communications as well as its TERRA regional fiber and microwave network.
“Whenever possible, GCI provides back-up service (redundant service) so that we are still able to provide customers with connectivity in situations like these,” says Heather Handyside, GCI’s chief communications officer. “In this case, GCI customers in Nome, Kotzebue, Utqiaġvik, Wainwright, and Point Hope received GCI service through Quintillion’s fiber.” Or at least, what was left of it.
Handyside adds, “Shortly after the break was reported, GCI began to migrate some impacted services to GCI’s satellite network and to the TERRA network, a 3,300-mile fiber and microwave system that serves eighty-four communities in rural Alaska. This transition was completed quickly and followed the protocols in GCI’s Business Continuity Plans.”
GCI’s onshore network remains stable. “Customers who live in communities on the GCI-owned and -operated fiber system, which covers 80 percent of Alaskans, are not impacted by this event,” Handyside says.
To avert future communications blackouts, Harcharek wishes for safeguards so this situation never happens again. “I keep telling folks that this underscores the need to put in redundant systems so that communities aren’t brought to their knees,” he says. “We need more investment, and the infrastructure bill might provide some funding.”
The same day he said that was the day the White House announced the release of $42 billion to expand internet access across the country, including $1 billion for Alaska, through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program created in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and administered by the US Department of Commerce.