A warming Arctic emerges as a route for subsea cables

Northern countries are racing to build underwater communications cables through the waters of the Arctic, as shrinking ice coverage opens the region to new business opportunities and heightens geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West.

Alaska, along with a group of Finnish and Japanese companies, are competing to build better digital infrastructure in a fragile but increasingly important area for cable defense and scientific research employed by the Russian government.

Subsea cables, bundles of fiber-optic lines, carry about 95% of intercontinental voice and data traffic. are currently over 400 such cablesWith the speed of communication roughly proportional to the length of each cable.

Because the geographic distance between the continents is shorter in the Arctic than further south, a cable through the region would promise faster communication, experts say. The possibility of the route has become more feasible because quick warming The area has been opened for development.

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A bank in London is transmitting data to Tokyo, which can make it 30% to 40% faster than existing routes via the Arctic route, via routes leading from London and east of Egypt. That is, said Tim Strong, analyst at subsea cable analysis firm Telegeography. Industries such as defence, petroleum, gas and fishing, as well as scientists conducting climate research in the Arctic, would all benefit from faster communication, he said, adding that communities living there would also have better Internet access.

Alaska-based company Far North Digital LLC, partnering with Finland’s Sinia Limited and Japan’s company

arterial network Corporation

, plans to build a cable through Northwest Passage, the route that curls around northern Alaska and loops across the Canadian islands and down to Greenland, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. The company expects to deploy the ships to begin survey work in the summer of 2023.

The proposed Far North fiber route, which is intended to be operational by the end of 2026, would travel approximately 14,000 km, or 8,699 miles, east from Japan, via the Northwest Passage and then to Europe, according to Ethan Berkowitz, a co-author of Founder of Far North Digital. He said that the work on this project has been going on for many years.

Mr Berkowitz said the project has secured an engineering, procurement and construction contract from Alcatel Submarine Networks and has begun the permitting process “at various locations around the route”. He said the companies are in advanced talks to finance the project, which is expected to cost around 1 billion euros, or $1.04 billion.

The Far North fiber route is expected to be operational by the end of 2026.


photo:

Far North Digital LLC

Far North Digital is hardly the only company claiming the northern frontier. A Russian state-owned company, Morsvizsputnik, made headlines in August when it said it had begun construction on 12,650 kilometers of cable around its north and east coast.

The Russian government has been silent on this since then. “It is our understanding from industry sources that some segments are active,” commented TeleGeography’s Mr. Strong.

Tim Reilly, a research fellow at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, said the melting of the Arctic has opened up economic opportunities in the region, making the region increasingly politicized and geo-economically competitive. Russian war in Ukraine heightened those tensionsThey said.

“The strategic issue is the quiet, vicious fight for the rule of the region using technical means rather than outright struggle,” Dr. Reilly said.

“Having control over the passage of data, which in itself is a source of power,” commented Nima Khormi, a Stockholm-based research associate at The Arctic Institute.

The cables represent an intelligence, strategic and economic advantage, Dr. Reilly said. They can help countries manage and intercept big data, better control space-based missile guidance systems and satellites that provide content and services as a means of global influence, he said. , They said.

“With Finland’s possible entry into NATO, as well as Sweden, this is going to enable communications that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Mr Berkowitz said. “This route is safer and less dependent on the goodness of non-NATO members.”

But building a subsea cable in cold Arctic waters is no small feat, according to Matt Peterson, chief technology officer at Quintillion Subsea Operations, LLC, which operates a 1,180-mile subsea cable around the coast of Alaska.

The first difficulty is that cables can only be built or worked on during the summer months when ice sheets do not cover the surface of the water, he said.

Another risk is that when ice plates shift, especially in the shallow waters around Alaska, they run the risk of tearing the fibers apart, he said. Quintillion contracted Alcatel Submarine Networks to build a sea hull that was able to bury the cable deep under the ocean to avoid that problem, he said.

Like Far North Digital, Quintillion is also planning to lay new cables. It expects to complete construction on a section connecting Alaska to Asia in about three years, and then begin on the Canada to Europe leg.

Arctic ice has its advantages, Mr Berkowitz said. Many subsea cable problems come from dragging and ripping boats and anchors to the bottom. “When you have snow cover, you don’t have those problems,” he said.

Mr Berkowitz said he had been thinking about the Arctic cable for nearly a decade, before the melting of the region made the idea more realistic. “It’s an essential piece of infrastructure,” he said.

“For me, it’s a question: You look at a map and you see a need,” he said.

write to isabelle bousquet [email protected]

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