The Gulf of Boothia is a tall, narrow section of the Northwest Passage—the long-sought sea route through the Arctic Ocean—that resembles a Chinese dragon diving down into the Canadian north. For most of Canada's history, and thousands of years before, it was bound in Arctic pack ice: impassable. Over the past fifteen years, that has changed. Ice clearances in the gulf can now last for eight weeks or longer, from August to October.
To the scientific community, that's another drop in the ocean of evidence for climate change. To one Canadian telecom startup, however, it's a chance for an unprecedented, hugely complex business venture: to connect London and Tokyo directly via fiber optic cable.
Later this month, Toronto-based Arctic Fibre will announce major investment from several New York private equity funds. Soon after, the company will begin elaborate marine surveys, now feasible because of the iceless weeks in late summer. They're the final step before laying fiber optic cable along the Arctic Ocean floor. And if climate and commerce permit, by the end of 2016, Arctic Fibre will have built a single, nearly 10,000 mile-long undersea network connection between Somerset, in England's southwest, and Ibaraki Prefecture, on the east coast of Honshu. At a cost of $620 million, they will have threaded internet through the Arctic Circle.
It's the latest, and maybe the most ambitious project in the global push to establish fiber optic redundancy, the need for which became glaring six years ago when several cuts of undersea cable in the Mediterranean Sea slowed or even stopped internet traffic across much of Asia. Last month BuzzFeed wrote about the effort to create new, overland internet routes between Europe and Asia:
In the wake of the 2008 disruption, companies on both ends of the Mediterranean route began clamoring for redundancy, or the creation of alternative network links from Europe to Asia. And over the past half-decade, a series of enormous European and Asian telecom consortia have done just that, building four new overland fiber-optic pathways to link Europe to the financial hubs of the Persian Gulf and the booming economies of South Asia…ISPs, banks, and other major companies will readily pay a premium to diversify the source of their internet service and ensure that they aren't vulnerable to future outages.
The new overland cables share one basic problem: They all run through the Middle East or the Caucuses, enormously volatile regions in which conditions are ripe for future service disruptions. The main cable of the Arctic Fibre, on the other hand, except for landings in Europe, Japan, at Cambridge Bay in the Canadian north, will hardly come ashore at all.
That's an enormously enticing prospect for commercial concerns in East Asia and Europe. Says Doug Cunningam, Arctic Fibre's CEO, "I've sat in offices in London, and I've picked up lots of carrier interest in South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and the Chinese will come around as well."
Still, laying cable across thousands of miles of rugged and topographically varied sea floor poses its own unique challenges. Sea ridges and cliffs can chafe cable to the breaking point; underwater currents can snap cable sideways; cascading rocks on the steep slopes of the Japan Trench could cause dangerous rockslides. For Arctic Fibre to work, the company needs to know where to use double-armored cable, where to give the cable slack, where to pull it taut, and where to bolt it to the seafloor.
That's where the marine mapping comes in. The first set of surveying ships will sail west from Prudhoe Bay on the northern coast of Alaska, south through the Chukshi Sea and Bering Strait (across which Sarah Palin famously glanced Russia), and then southwest to Shemya, at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands. They'll use advanced side-scan sonar, digital cameras, electromagnetic probes, and drills that snatch subsea cores, all in order to measure and characterize the seafloor on which they'll lay cables.
Says Cunningham, "We're going to know within a meter where we're putting this fiber".
While the final plan is for a cable spanning two oceans and the Arctic, among the first customers to get service from Arctic Fibre will be residents of northern Alaska and the northern Canadian territories Nunavut and Nunavik. Among them are tens of thousands of Inuit people, who, according to Cunningham, "pay usurious amounts for bandwidth" that, for a variety of reasons, is prone to major interruptions. In Nunavut, nearly half of Inuit households are on government assistance, and more affordable internet could be a major boon to local economies.
In January, after a three-month screening of the project, the Nunavut Impact Review Board, which is dedicated to protecting "the future well-being of the residents and communities of Nunavut, and to protect the ecosystemic integrity of the Nunavut Settlement Area" ruled that Arctic Fibre did not require a more in-depth environment hearing. They did so on the condition that Arctic Fibre abide by 52 terms and conditions, most of which concern the protection of local land and wildlife.
Still, the bulk of the money is going to eventually come from corporations—major telecoms and financial institutions—on either side of the world that are willing to spend to make sure that their internet never slows or stops. And if a banker in London gets a trade to Tokyo a few milliseconds faster because of Arctic Fibre, he'll have his fellow man's reckless consumption habits, writ large, to thank.
Says Cunningham, "It is made possible by climate change."