Opinion: Network Outage Provides Teachable Moment for Alaska and the US

Mead Treadwell argues that much can be learned from the disruption of the Quintillion fiber optic cable.

By Mead Treadwell - August 28, 2023
Personnel aboard a ship contracted by Quintillion prepare to reel out the fiber-optic cable. Credit Quintillion

An ongoing emergency in the American Arctic this summer has gone largely unnoticed — except by those citizens and businesses in northern Alaska who have been most affected.

For Alaska, and the nation, it is a teachable and a learning moment, it should also be decisive.

The Quintillion fiber optic cable, which connects coastal villages on Alaska’s North Slope to North America’s fiber networks, went dark on June 11, after more than five years of uninterrupted service.  Quintillion calculates the line was cut 34 miles offshore of Oliktok Point, northwest of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, probably by an ice keel as much as 90 feet deep. 

No one has laid eyes yet on the break, as to do so would require either an icebreaker with divers or a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). So more than two months later the extent of the damage is still unknown.

In addition to supplying internet transport for business, residential broadband, and cellular network “backhaul” for all mobile operators in the region, the Quintillion cable brings data from US defense radars to command posts in Anchorage and Colorado Springs. Those radars and associated air traffic control infrastructure support flying not just in Alaska, but international traffic that often brings more than 10,000 people a day—and large amounts of air cargo — across the Arctic between North America, Europe, and Asia. Satellite backup is available, but even the newest networks have nowhere near the capacity to meet regular data demands of the USA’s northernmost US community of Utqiagvik, and communities to the west, including Kotzebue and Nome.

For years, I’ve worked to bring public and private investment in the increasingly accessible Arctic region. Political leaders of all parties have worked to get the US to boost its capabilities in the Arctic.  

On virtually everyone’s shopping list, public and private, military and civil, are infrastructure gaps to be filled:  new icebreakers, ice-capable research vessels, communications capability, new robotics, and sensors (what the military calls situational awareness) above and below the waterline.

In the last two decades, we’ve seen great progress with enhanced US military and agency-sponsored research in the Arctic, but they need a robust infrastructure to operate. A US Department of Energy Sandia Labs-sponsored sensor array, as well as testing of emergency-preparedness systems, rely on this cable.

Despite that, while US agencies have been sympathetic to Utqiagvik’s plight, few have shown up to help. For instance, a US Coast Guard icebreaker could have investigated the break, but to do so would have diverted the Healy from last month’s long planned international science mission in the Beaufort Sea.

A trans-Arctic cruise leaving shortly from Kodiak, renewing and repowering buoys necessary to keep a continuous climate data set for the Arctic Ocean, will take the Healy further afield.  In earlier days, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that mission was a highlight of U.S.-Russia Arctic research cooperation.

Quintillion has a repair ship at the ready for instances like this and loaded the ship in Dutch Harbor earlier this month with equipment for various repair possibilities. The cost of these repairs and other contingency plans is part of the company’s significant investment in providing and maintaining service in the North Slope. But additional public-sector resources could have sped up the repair timeline.  

The teachable moment for us as a nation is that we rely on Arctic investments for our security and our livelihood, yet the partnerships we know are necessary – between government and private efforts – are not easily in place when an emergency happens. The cable, which cost private investors close to $300 million to install, is buried very deep below the ocean bottom near shore, but an ice event so far offshore was not expected. 

In December of 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive order 7521, still in effect, stating the Coast Guard should execute ice-breaking operations to preserve commerce. Opinions differ as to whether that order applies to repair operations for a commercial cable, but it should, like it did when the Coast Guard directed the Healy to escort a fuel supply vessel to Nome in the winter of 2011-2012.   

This is one of the reasons we all have pushed for new U.S. Arctic icebreakers — the needs for icebreaker platforms have grown but the number of U.S. icebreakers has not. One of America’s most capable private icebreakers, the Aiviq, could have been available, but funding for a US Coast Guard lease fell out of appropriations bills last Christmas.

The learnable moment is that network resiliency is key, and we’ve learned more about risks of fiber installed under ice. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is investing what could be its largest single grant in an offshore fiber optics cable, extending around the coast of Alaska, from where Quintillion leaves off to connection to fiber on Alaska’s South Coast near Cook Inlet, a sum of $88.8 million.

Such a ring will leave Northern communities far less vulnerable to a cable break.   

The decisive moment for the U.S. at this time is to understand that sustainable use in the Arctic requires better public-private partnerships. It is time to convene the experts, if only to observe now, support the repair where possible, and to develop plans for future emergencies. An ice scour of our fiber lines today could be replicated by terrorists or unfriendly nations in the future, and having contingencies in place is vital to US interests.

Getting ready for an accessible Arctic requires understanding that the Arctic is accessible now, is being used now, is something that we depend on now, and something we have to maintain now and in the future. Technology, not just ice retreat, has led commerce’s advancement in the Arctic.  

As we continue to grow the U.S. Arctic presence, an oft stated national goal, we should take advantage, learn and decide from this situation, and be better prepared – with prevention and response – for a long Arctic future

Mead Treadwell (right) Qilak’s chairman and CEO, and David Clarke, a BP veteran who is Qilak’s COO and president, talk to reporters at an Anchorage briefing. (Yereth Rosen)

Mead Treadwell, a member of the board of Arctic Today,served as Lt. Governor of Alaska 2010-2014, as U.S. Arctic Research Commissioner from 2001-2010 under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and chair of the Commission 2006-2010.  He is a co-founder of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and co-chairs the Institute’s Advisory Board.  In business, he chairs QilakLNG, an Arctic-focused energy initiative, and the global satellite firm Iridium’s Polar Advisory Board, and serves on the board of Arctic investor Pt Capital. His opinions in this piece are his own