Contemplating Fiber Through the Northwest Passage

January 19th, 2010 by · Leave a Comment

It’s not often that the Arctic Ocean comes up in the context of fiberoptics, and my first impression of yesterday’s headline about a proposed ArcticLink cable amounted to ‘Fiber-To-The-Igloo??’  But actually the project calls for a 10,000 mile undersea Japan-UK cable that goes through the Bering Straight and right on through the fabled Northwest Passage.  It’s a route that a decade or two ago would have been fantasy at best, but which now might be plausible due to the receding ice cap.  

It makes a great deal of sense in some ways.  For instance, if that is the fastest path for air travel, it makes sense that it would be the best route underwater.  In the current battle to lower latency for financial companies, I believe such a cable would probably be very attractive to say the least.  According to the article, a reduction by half actually – down to 90ms, though for now that remains theoretical at best.  The diversity wouldn’t hurt either.

However, in other ways I just have to scratch my head.  Yes, the route is passable for much of the year now and there is a reliable construction window.  But what happens when we get a cable cut or some other failure in the deepest winter, or underneath a huge floating ice flow.  Repair times could still be measured in seasons if things go wrong.  And can you imagine being on such a repair trip:  40 degrees below zero, 24 hours of darkness, in a blizzard, a few thousand miles from port?  Also, climate changes aren’t smooth or easily predictable.  It’s one thing to describe steadily melting ice for a climatology report, it’s quite another to predict safe and reliable construction windows amongst icebergs and variable weather.  But then, hurricanes aren’t exactly fun either I guess.

If anybody can solve such problems, it will be a company based in the region that knows Arctic conditions (i.e. not me) such as the one behind this project – the Kodiak Kenai Cable Company.  They’ve been laying submarine cables around Alaska for a while now, and seem ready to take the plunge (ooh that’s cold) into a larger pool.  I don’t know if it will work out, but I wish them luck.

Categories: Low Latency · Undersea cables

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