The story by ISABELLE BOUSQUETTE – WSJ March 11, 2023, statesArctic is one of the world’s last digital frontiers. Subsea fiber-optic cables, which carry over 99% of intercontinental voice and data traffic, have traversed most of the world’s oceans, but so far not the Arctic Ocean, historically limited by the region’s ice sheet.”

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The Story:

UTQIAGVIK, Alaska—Nestled between the whalebone-marked graves of long-dead whaling captains, an arctic fox den and a snow-covered beach, a series of satellite dishes point at the horizon from this northern Alaskan town.

Far from the superfast fiber- optic cables that provide internet connectivity to other parts of the world, Arctic towns like Utqiagvik have typically relied on more limited, less reliable satellite connections. It means that students can rarely stream educational videos, hospitals spend hours uploading medical scans and scientists sometimes struggle to simply open emails.

The Arctic is one of the world’s last digital frontiers. Subsea fiber-optic cables, which carry over 99% of intercontinental voice and data traffic, have traversed most of the world’s oceans, but so far not the Arctic Ocean, historically limited by the region’s ice sheet.

As that ice sheet has started melting due to climate change, telecommunications companies have looked to the area—where Asia, Europe and North America are closer than they are at any other point on Earth—for a shorter, potentially more efficient route for data flows across the three continents.

“Climate change is even making it technically all the time easier,” said AJ Knaapila, president and chief executive of Finnish telecommunications, cybersecurity and software company Cinia Oy, which, along with partners, hopes to build a submarine fiber-optic cable through the Arctic in coming years, a project estimated to cost roughly $1.2 billion.

An Arctic route would offer the shortest connection between London and Tokyo, carrying implications for industries like financial trading, where milliseconds can make the difference between profits and losses. It would also bring much-needed connectivity to rural northern towns like Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, transforming one of the least digital regions to a major digital crossroads.

Cinia in the past year and a half formed a joint venture with Arteria Networks Corp. of Japan and Alaska’s Far North Digital LLC on the project. The current estimate for the length of the cable stands at about 10,500 miles, although the final length could vary, according to Alcatel Submarine Networks, the Nokia Corp. subsidiary contracted by the joint venture to lay the cable. With a route survey beginning this year, the cable system is scheduled to be operational in 2026. But when asked about the likelihood of that timeline being met, a Cinia official expressed uncertainty.


“If you ask four of us, you will get four different answers,” said Taneli Vuorinen, Cinia’s executive vice president of Global Connectivity.

Cinia, which is owned 77.5% by the Finnish government, is already a veteran of one failed effort. In 2019, Cinia partnered with Russian company Mega-Fon on an earlier project designed to route cable east from Europe over the Russian Arctic to Asia. It fell apart in 2021 after the Russian government’s support of the project started to fade and the geopolitical risks of operating a data flow so close to Russia felt too high, Cinia said.

The company packed up its research and partnered with Arteria and Far North Digital on the new cable project, going west from Europe, through the Northwest Passage in Canada, over Alaska and landing in Japan.

The cable must earn more than $80 million annually during its roughly 25-year lifespan to be profitable, Cinia said.

The partners are self-funding the project with revenue from other areas of their business, while they search for funding from outside investors and future customers. Before survey work can begin later this year, the companies say they need to sell about half the capacity.

The potential for low-latency communications is one of its biggest selling points, according to Mr. Knaapila. A bank in London transmitting data to Tokyo could do so 30% to 40% faster via an Arctic route than through existing subsea routes—a roughly 35-millisecond advantage one way—according to Tim Stronge, an analyst at subsea cable analysis firm TeleGeography.

Nearly all subsea cables that connect Asia and Europe go through Egypt, but that path is also a common route for shipping, which is the second most common cause of cable failures, said Paul Gabla, chief sales and marketing officer at Alcatel Submarine Networks. The most common cause is fishing activity, he said. The Arctic offers minimal shipping traffic or fishing activity, and in the winter, the ice sheet would protect it from human-caused damage, he said.

The same ice also limits construction. While climate change has made the Arctic warmer and rainier, work on an Arctic cable could be completed only during summer months when the ice sheet dissipates, Mr. Gabla said.

Maintenance presents another issue. It makes potential customers nervous. Takahiro Sumimoto, senior vice president of marine cable for NTT Ltd., a London-based IT and infrastructure company owned by Japanese holding company Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp., said that if the cable breaks during the winter months, users might have to wait months for it to come back online.

“You can guess that it’s tough to access there. And are you able to pick up the cable from the seabed? If it’s frozen, you can’t,” he said.

Too much customer hesitation could bring the project to a halt. Cinia, Arteria and Far North Digital are wooing other telecommunications carriers, global data center operators such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Microsoft Corp., and research and education networks.

So far, the joint venture has published one signed letter of intent from NORDUnet, a collaboration of the National Research and Education Networks of the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. NORDUnet has said it would use one fiber pair—between 6.25% and 8.3% of the total cable system’s capacity. Some carriers, including Verizon Communications Inc., Orange SA and NTT say they would be interested in evaluating the system once it is built, but there is a hesitation about jumping in early.

Link to the Wall Street Journal Story:

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