High speed internet cable construction project sets sail into Arctic

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DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska (KTUU) - After four years of planning, a new subsea fiber optic cable construction project is setting sail into the Arctic to plug-in rural Alaska to modern high speed internet.

The Ile de Brehat is one of the cable-laying ships from France contracted to complete the work. It took 41 days for the ship and crew to travel from Calais through the Panama Canal to Dutch Harbor, but in mid-July the vessel finally made it into Alaska waters.

It’s enormous. In Anchorage terms, the length of the ship is about the size of both the Atwood Building and the Captain Cook Hotel laid end-over-end.

“I hope you are fit, because there are six floors,” Captain Charles Souffre told a group touring the Ile de Brehat on Monday.

The logistics of breaking ground on the Arctic construction project isn't any small feat.

Anchorage-based company Quintillion said it’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars to contract with a fleet of cable laying ships to build the first subsea fiber optic cable along Alaska’s Arctic coast.

According to Souffre, his crew is working on a short window of time. During the upcoming months of summer, the sea ice will be melted allowing the crew to deploy a 12 ton remote controlled vehicle alongside the ship to dig trenches and lay the cable. If the mission isn’t completed before the ice returns, the crew must wait until next summer to resume work.

“These ships go to sea for weeks and months on end, completely self contained,” said CEO of Quintillion Elizabeth Pierce. “The technology and the complexities of the operations, the capabilities of the crew are amazing.”

The company plans to run the high speed internet cables from Nome to Prudhoe Bay, with connection points along the way in Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright and Barrow. Although Quintillion doesn’t develop the internet capabilities within the coastal Arctic villages, it sells telecommunication companies like Alaska Communications and GCI to opportunites to hook into the infrastructure to build out the networks on land.

“[These villages are] very quickly going to go from some of the most expensive, highest latency, poorest quality service in the world to the most advanced system in the world,” said Pierce.

The internet isn’t expected to go online in the rural communities until next year. According to Quintillion, the implications of the change will be wide-ranging.

“In places where there is little to no economy, that can be huge,” said former Northwest Arctic Borough mayor and current consultant for Quintillion Reggie Joule. “I think for education, for healthcare delivery systems, it will be a game changer.”

With the new connection, there are concerns about an influx of new technology complicating traditional cultures. Even though the communities are far off the road system, many have struggled with keeping long-held traditions alive.

“It's not all going to be good, but most of it will be,” said Joule. “There's going to be different choices on the use of the bandwidth that we get. Like everything else we'll work our way through that, or we won’t. But it will be there.”

After the communities are connected, Quintillion expects to begin focus on the second and third phases of the project. The ultimate vision is to build the first subsea fiber optic line connecting the internet directly from Japan to Europe through the Northwest Passage.

“To get from Europe to Asia now, you either have to get through the Middle East, which has a lot of security issues, or go through the continental US through land, which adds a lot of latency and distance and cost,” said Pierce.

Pierce said the endeavor is entirely privately funded by an investment group from New York City, as well as from Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Calista Corporation.

The Ile de Brehat and its 67 crewmembers are expected to begin digging on the ocean floor outside of Nome next week.

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