Quintillion project seeks to build Arctic telecom network

Amid the increased activity in the Arctic is a project that could improve telecommunications in rural Alaska.

Quintillion, the Alaska-arm of the international Arctic Fibre project, wants to lay submarine fiber optic cable from Asia to Europe, routed along Alaska’s northern coastline with spurs to five communities.

If the project continues as planned, it could mean extra traffic in the Arctic for the next few years while the companies scope out the route, and eventually build it.

For now, Quintillion and its contractors doing prep work in the state, while Arctic Fibre focuses on Outside components.

Arctic Fibre is a Canada-based company working on the international line, while an entity outside of Canada will likely own other international segments.

Quintillion was formed in December to ensure that the Alaska work was done by an Alaska company, said CEO Elizabeth Pierce.

Quintillion will ensure spurs are built to certain local communities. From there, it will be up to local service providers to tap into the service and distribute it to customers.

Right now, the spurs are planned in Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow, Wainwright and Prudhoe Bay.

Some work will also be done in Shemya, although whether or not a spur is placed there will depend on the final design and need for service.

In each community, Pierce and others at Quintillion are trying to determine what challenges await when building begins. In Nome, the company wants a spur route that avoids any dredging activity. Farther north, Quintillion doesn’t want to interfere with whaling activity.

“We need very close collaboration with all the interest groups to pick the right sites,” Pierce said.

Pierce said environmental factors, subsistence fishing and other human risks are being considered as the company develops its building plan. In each community, they’re asking for any considerations that residents may have, including local knowledge about natural phenomena and changes to the landscape. Every detail, even where manhole covers go, requires close attention.

Pierce said she traveled to Nome and Kotzebue in May, and had visits to Barrow and Wainwright planned for June. In each community, she tries to meet with local governments as well as hold an open house for area residents.

Quintillion officials have also done some over the phone briefings, she said.

Depending on how this summer’s work goes, building could start in 2014. Some portions of the Arctic Fibre line will likely be ready earlier, but the plan is to build the entire route at once. The effort will require four ships — one each for the main line and the spurs from each direction. They’ll spend about ten months completing the whole line. Doing it all at once is the most cost-efficient method, she said.

Someday, Pierce said, a phase two could be added, using microwave towers and fiber to extend the network to additional communities.

That’s not unlike GCI’s existing TERRA project, which is using microwave towers and subterranean cable to build out the company’s network to Nome and Kotzebue.

Pierce said she sees that project as complimentary, and any competition as beneficial to consumers.

Because Quintillion won’t sell its products or be coming inland right away, so it won’t compete in many of the smaller communities GCI plans to serve. And the Alaska telcoms could tap into the Arctic Fibre line to boost their service, depending on how things work out.

Aside from outreach, Quintillion and Arctic Fibre are waiting for the sea ice to go out so that a vessel can do a marine survey of the entire route. Once that’s done, Pierce said a final design can be established. That work will likely be done this summer.

Engineers and experts have been working with local providers to look at landing sites as ice and snow goes away. Pierce said that work will continue for the next several months

Quintillion is a small company, with four employees, but has many, many contractors onboard working on various aspects, Pierce said.

Pierce said that Quintillion has a focus on local hire, and is asking the businesses they hire to do the same wherever possible.

They’re using contractors, in part, so that local entities can do the work, rather than having Quintillion temporarily hire people that are out of a job when the project is done.

“We’re contracting out everything that we possible can,” Pierce said.

Alaska Communications is helping with some design and planning work, and contractors are working on permitting and preparing the landing sites.

Permitting is also in the works, but some agencies will require a final design before signing off on the project, Pierce said.

Environmental surveys and archaeological surveys will also be required.

Internationally, the new line will create a much faster connection between east and west. That’s largely what makes the project pencil out.

The more demand there is to move international traffic, the lower the rates will be.

Pierce said that right now there are terabytes of demand from financial institutions, travel industry, retail, internet content providers, and other carriers and entities.

Total, the project should come in under $200 million for everything, she said.

For Alaskans, that will mean faster speeds at a lower cost.

Pierce said that local service providers have committed to passing along the savings to customers, and people should be able to purchase similar amounts of bandwith for a lower price than they do currently, or more bandwidth for their current rate.

That’s a benefit not just for home consumers, but also for anyone wanting to start an internet business, and for healthcare entities and schools, Pierce said.

Many of the benefits are not yet realized. Pierce said she asks people to think about what they could do if there were no limits. That’s what the project can facilitate, she said.

The ability to use Skype could help maintain cultures and languages by better connecting youth and elders in different places, and also offer a means for counseling, Pierce said.

But concerns have also been raised, such as worries that increased access to the internet means increased risk of scams. Pierce said she’s working with the university about safety and security trainings, which could help individuals, but also be very useful for small business owners.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

05/30/2013 - 7:24am