Melting Ice & Undersea Cables: How the Arctic Is Getting Fast Internet – WSJ’s The Future of Everything19 min read
This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Danny Lewis: Hey, Isabelle.
Isabelle Bousquette: Hi, Danny.
Danny Lewis: So we’re sitting here in a studio in the middle of midtown in New York City, and I wish I could say it was chilly today.
Isabelle Bousquette: But it’s not.
Danny Lewis: No, it’s not at all. It’s like 60 degrees outside.
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah, it’s a really nice day.
Danny Lewis: And that’s nothing like what you experienced 3,000 miles away north in the Arctic?
Isabelle Bousquette: No, not at all. Flying in the plane across what is essentially just a barren white wasteland was crazy.
Danny Lewis: That’s WSJ Pro enterprise tech reporter Isabelle Bousquette.
Isabelle Bousquette: And I remember looking out from the plain windows and just seeing, on the tip of the northern coast of Alaska, this tiny little town.
Speaker 3: I’d like to welcome you to Barrow. The local time is 4:15 PM. Please remain seated with your seat belts on. Our pilots will turn off the seatbelt sign when it is safe for you to get up.
Isabelle Bousquette: Barrow was the name of the town for a long time, and some people still call it that, but now its official name is Utqiagvik.
Danny Lewis: Utqiagvik, what does that mean?
Isabelle Bousquette: It’s the traditional Inupiaq name for the area, and it can translate to a place to gather wild roots or a place to hunt snowy owls.
Danny Lewis: Oh, what’s it like?
Isabelle Bousquette: It’s a really beautiful place. The nature is beautiful. There’s a really rich community heritage, but there’s also a lot of challenges. Normal everyday internet access is a huge challenge in northern communities like this. So typically, if you’re living somewhere like Utqiagvik, that’s incredibly remote, you’re getting most of your connectivity from satellites. But the connections are really limited, especially when the satellites aren’t orbiting that closely, which, this far north, they’re not. And it can be anything as simple as just opening an email can just take a really long time.
Danny Lewis: So what changed?
Isabelle Bousquette: Fiber-optic cables. Melting sea ice is leading to more possibilities for laying fiber-optic cables across certain areas of the Arctic. So now, rather than waiting hours for medical scans to return or Zoom calls to buffer, people in these remote areas could be surfing the internet at a much higher speed. Companies are vying to be the first ones to expand these cables across the region and bring the Arctic further online.
Danny Lewis: From the Wall Street Journal, this is The Future of Everything. I’m Danny Lewis. Today, we’re looking at the race to lay thousands of miles of submarine cables and what that could mean for the future of the Arctic. Stick around.
So, Isabelle, you visited a few places across the Arctic, and you are just telling us about Utqiagvik, the northernmost city in the United States. What was it like?
Isabelle Bousquette: It was really windy. It’s like this big, vast desert, but covered in snow.
Speaker 3: Little windy.
Isabelle Bousquette: Okay, let me prepare for that.
You can see out the window, and you look, and it’s just white as far as the eye can see.
In a lot of places, you can’t even see where the white tundra ice meets the white, cloudy horizon.
Danny Lewis: That sounds pretty extreme. You were there to check out how they got high-speed internet in such a remote place. What difference does having access to a fiber-optic cable really make?
Isabelle Bousquette: Fiber-optic connectivity is really different from satellite connectivity. It’s a lot faster. It’s a lot more reliable. And once you have a fiber-optic cable, to a certain extent, you can do all the traditional things that you would think of when you do the internet. You can stream videos, you can upload, you can download once you have that cable connection. And that’s what we think of as good connectivity. That’s what we use in bigger cities. And as the sea ice is melting in the Arctic region, some companies are starting to be able to lay cables in the waters around these regions.
Danny Lewis: So I understand a company called Quintillion laid a fiber-optic cable around part of Alaska’s coastline a few years back, and you got to see it.
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah. So I went to the landing station, which is where the submarine cable comes up and meets land. You don’t really see the cable itself because when it gets to land, it goes underground. It’s not just laying on top of the street. And the landing station, it’s not on the beach; it’s further inland. So it’s like the cable goes from being a subsea cable to being underground.
Speaker 5: And it comes up right here. This big pipe.
Isabelle Bousquette: Then it comes up in this little shed, which is where it feeds into the local internet providers. Again, if you didn’t know what this shed was, you wouldn’t think that it was providing high-speed internet to the entire town.
Speaker 5: So this is our cable landing station.
Isabelle Bousquette: The Quintillion cable came online in 2017, so that’s when it started making a big difference for communities in Utqiagvik and some other regions around Alaska as well. So if we take, for example, Ilisagvik College, which I visited when I was in Utqiagvik, it’s the local community college there and it’s the most northern accredited community college in the US. I spoke with Monica Lugo, who is the director of technology at the college, and she talked about how their daily operations were drastically different before the cable was laid.
Monica Lugo: We would not have been able to communicate via video conference. Everything would’ve had to have been done by phone or just working on their own. But even then, they wouldn’t be able to really work on their classwork because they didn’t have the data, they didn’t have the speed to.
Isabelle Bousquette: But once they got the cable, things got a lot faster. Things like remote classes and being able to do that during Covid, that was really enabled by the cable.
Danny Lewis: You mentioned the impact on healthcare earlier. What kind of difference is this cable making in that part of Alaska?
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah, I visited the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital, which is in Utqiagvik. And I talked to Andy Stemp, who is the vice president of finance for the Arctic Slope Native Association, which runs the hospital. He’s at the hospital, serves an area with about 11,000 people relying on this one hospital, and it’s really the only one around for hundreds of miles.
Is by air the only way to get to and from those other places?
Andy Stemp: Correct.
Isabelle Bousquette: Okay.
Andy Stemp: And I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture, but we at Samuel Simmonds are probably your first and best chance of accessing medical care. There’s some resources in the Prudhoe Bay oil field, but we respond 24 hours a day to anything that’s going on on Slope, and technology plays a huge part in equipping us and enabling us to do that.
Isabelle Bousquette: There are also just a lot of different types of machines within the hospital that need connectivity to work that can’t really turn on or do what they need to do without the connectivity.
Danny Lewis: So what changed for them once this fiber-optic internet was hooked up?
Isabelle Bousquette: One of the biggest things they actually talked about was eyeglasses, and they have a machine now that you put in the measurements and the machine creates your eyeglass prescription on the spot. I spoke to Kelly Ross, who works as an optician there.
Kelly Ross: This has been really amazing technology for us to have up here, and this is something we were able to bring into the clinic the last couple of years.
Danny Lewis: I’ve worn glasses for years since I was like 10 years old or something, and I have no idea how they’re made really. How does this thing work? Why is internet so important to it?
Isabelle Bousquette: Essentially, she presses some buttons. She puts in some information about what the person’s prescription is and what the lens needs to look like.
Kelly Ross: So what I’m doing right now is I’m just tracing the inside of the lens, so making a pattern so that the lenses will cut out to the exact shape and also according to her prescription and also to where her pupil sits in that frame.
Isabelle Bousquette: Then, once it starts happening, it looks like 3D printing, like a loud whirring noise, and yeah, you see the pane of the eyeglass just coming to life in front of you.
Danny Lewis: You got to watch her make a pair of glasses.
Isabelle Bousquette: She was just standing there chatting with me, and the machine was doing the heavy lifting. But yeah, I watched her make a pair of just light plastic glasses.
Kelly Ross: So just in the time we had a little cup of coffee and a chit-chat, we got a pair of glasses made for this gal.
Isabelle Bousquette: Wow.
Kelly Ross: And her life is going to be better starting today. So I’ll clean them up. I’ll get her a case.
Isabelle Bousquette: And you couldn’t have really done that without good internet connectivity?
Kelly Ross: This won’t even turn on.
Danny Lewis: That’s so wild. That’s so much better than having to wait weeks for them to be mailed to you. What about if a patient needs some kind of scan or medical imaging done?
Isabelle Bousquette: Because the hospital is not super accessible, having remote care is even more important, and they just don’t have the staff. So they rely on doctors in Anchorage to do a lot of that.
Speaker 11: Come on in. This is our new CT machine.
Isabelle Bousquette: First, they need to get those scans to Anchorage, and that’s a really difficult process if you don’t have a good internet connection. Sometimes it might be hours between the time they start uploading a scan and the time a doctor can actually look at it and tell them what’s going on here. Now those scans can be uploaded a lot faster than they could, thanks to the fiber connection. Paul Alba is an imaging supervisor at the hospital.
Paul Alba: The transmission time is very minimal compared to our connectivity that we’ve had in the past. And then, if there’s something that the doctor needs, they mark a stat, and actually, our stat reads are now coming back within 30 minutes.
Isabelle Bousquette: Even with the cable in place, the hospital in Utqiagvik is always going to be relying on doctors in Anchorage, and so the fact that they can communicate with those doctors and share images and files more quickly is really vital.
Danny Lewis: When we’re looking at internet costs here in New York City, faster connections cost more.
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah.
Danny Lewis: What’s the price of this kind of upgrade if it’s for something this significant?
Isabelle Bousquette: Pricing has been a little bit of a challenge for use of this cable. So there’s different types of packages and different models, but it is expensive. For Ilisagvik, for example, the majority of their connectivity is actually covered by a donation from Quintillion. But even so, with the amount that they’re still paying out of pocket, their monthly bill is almost $24,000.
Danny Lewis: Oh, yikes. What’s the cost for individual households, then?
Isabelle Bousquette: From the people I spoke to, definitely not everyone can afford to pay for this, that’s for sure. Ilisagvik College can afford it, but not every student can have it when they go home. Here’s Monica Lugo, the college’s director of technology, again.
Monica Lugo: It’s not affordable for a lot of the families because they pay by data usage, where here in Utqiagvik we have some unlimited plans where maybe some of the villages don’t, the other villages don’t. So if they can cut costs by turning off their video and only calling in instead of a video conference, that’s what they do.
Isabelle Bousquette: Another point is that the capacity on the fiber is higher than the amount that small populations like this actually end up using. So that’s why the cost per person is higher than it would be in more densely populated areas. The places that need that capacity, like the schools and hospitals and the research centers, they really do see a benefit. Andy Stemp from the Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital told me it was definitely worth the cost.
Andy Stemp: It’s hard to overemphasize the value of the additional services. I am well aware of at least one person; they would not be with us today had it not been for the remote cardiac monitoring and the ability to respond immediately to their situation. So the value proposition is pretty compelling.
Danny Lewis: Aside from the day-to-day lives of people living there, lots of research is being done in the Arctic, too. What impact would that have on people who do research?
Isabelle Bousquette: This is a really vital area for climate change research. Bryan Thomas is a station chief at the Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Utqiagvik. And at this observatory, essentially, they measure chemicals in the atmosphere and use that to get a baseline idea of how present they are across the rest of the world. And they want to do it in the Arctic because there’s less pollution, so they can get really clean air to look at. Bryan Thomas says that sending this information would be a big struggle without the fiber-optic internet.
Bryan Thomas: The amount of data that’s being collected to answer some of the questions that we’re trying to answer now is explosive. And when we used to be able to make a modem call once a day to send a little bit of data, we can’t do that anymore because the amount of data that we’re collecting has exploded.
Danny Lewis: So the people Isabelle spoke to in Utqiagvik had been waiting a long time for this kind of connectivity. The local college, hospital, and research center all talked about the change they saw in just a matter of years. But companies are now racing to lay the next set of cables, and what that means for the future of the Arctic is complicated. We’ll talk about that after the break.
So I took a look at a map of these submarine cables. There’s so many around the equator and in between continents, but you don’t really see them in the far north climates that we’re talking about. Why is that?
Isabelle Bousquette: So the sea ice has been a big inhibitor to building a cable in the Arctic for a really long time, but that’s becoming less and less the case. The ships that are used to lay these cables aren’t built to break through ice, but the Arctic waters have warmed over the last decade, and these ships are reaching areas that they used to not be able to.
Danny Lewis: Hmm. So it seems like even though there are all these challenges, odds are most of these cables are going to get built in the Arctic. How exactly does that happen?
Isabelle Bousquette: So step one is that these companies need to contract a cable-laying company, and one of those is Alcatel Submarine Networks, which is a subsidiary of Nokia. They were the company that laid the Quintillion cable in Alaska. Step two is the marine route survey. So you send a ship out. Paul Gabla is the chief sales and marketing officer at Alcatel Submarine Networks, and he has a lot of expertise in this area.
Paul Gabla: So you plot the route for the cable, but then you have to send the ship to actually look at what it looks like where you want to go. And what the nature of the soil is: is it sand, is it mud, is it clay, is it a rock, et cetera? So you have to know that to define what kind of cable protection measures you will have to implement.
Isabelle Bousquette: The ship is basically doing recon all around the Arctic. And then, when all that other work is done, you basically create the cable in the factory.
Paul Gabla: We assemble the cable to the repeaters, which are devices which are placed approximately every 80 to 100 kilometers to reamplify the light signal that travels through the optical fibers. And then, we have a ship that comes to dock near the factory, and then, we load the cable onboard the cable ship in big tanks where the cable is pulled inside the tanks.
Isabelle Bousquette: And then they just drop it in the water and unspool it out behind the ship.
Danny Lewis: Wait, really?
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah. Yeah, that’s how they do it.
Paul Gabla: And then sinks to the bottom of the sea. So that’s when it’s really simple.
Isabelle Bousquette: Companies have been laying cable like this for 70 years, and not a lot of the process has changed in that time. Ships are getting more advanced, and they have better geo-positioning systems and things like that. In some areas, the cable needs to be buried into the ocean floor with something called a seaplow. But overall, yeah, a lot of the cables are laid out by the back of a ship.
Danny Lewis: But I can imagine it gets pretty complicated at points, right?
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah. Again, the process itself is surprisingly straightforward, but there are unique challenges with doing this in the Arctic. So the first thing they have to combat is the shorter time window during the year when they can do this. They probably only have the summer months to do this work.
Paul Gabla: Otherwise, it’s completely frozen, and a ship cannot go there. That means that the window for installing cables is very limited. It’s only a couple of months every year. So if we cannot do the whole thing in one year, then we have to come back the following year at the right season, and so on.
Danny Lewis: But that factor is changing, right? I mean, climate change is making a lot of this development possible.
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the earth is changing and the sea ice is melting, and that’s what’s enabling a lot of these cable projects. On one hand, it’s an opportunity. It’s the chance to connect parts of the world that have lower quality, slower connections and really bring more people online. But on the other hand, you can look at it as we’re losing a part of nature and we’re losing a part of the world. And throughout the planning process, there have been some concerns brought up about possibly disturbing marine wildlife and making sure indigenous communities are consulted.
Danny Lewis: Yeah, I mean, it seems like there are some mixed feelings, and it’s only becoming more of a conversation as we see more of that sea ice melting and icebergs breaking off in big chunks.
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah, that’s actually another thing they have to think about here is icebergs. Sometimes icebergs, as you said, shift or crash up against each other, and sometimes they hit the bottom of the sea floor. And if that happens, that could potentially cause damage to the cable. So another thing you have to think about that you might not think about on other cable routes is when they’re connecting the cable to land, they have to think about polar bears and the risk of encountering them and put systems in place for making sure the crew is prepared to deal with that.
Danny Lewis: So what happens if the cable is damaged? Can they fix it?
Isabelle Bousquette: Well, that’s harder in the Arctic for two reasons. One, like we talked about, if the cable breaks in winter, how is a ship going to get to it? No one really knows the answer to that yet. The other issue is that if, say, a cable breaks between New York and London, no big deal because there are a lot of other cables between New York and London, and you can switch over to another one. If a cable in the Arctic breaks and that’s the only cable in the Arctic, it’s a little more challenging.
Danny Lewis: So who are the people actually trying to lay down this new set of cables?
Isabelle Bousquette: There are a few different companies involved that are essentially trying to be the first to lay this trans-Arctic fiber-optic cable. One of the projects that’s furthest along is called the Far North Fiber, and there’s three different companies that are involved in that project. Ari-Jussi Knaapila is the chief executive officer of one of these companies, Cinia, which is based in Finland. And their plan is…
Ari-Jussi Knaapila: To somehow use the Arctic Sea to establish a new connectivity not only from Finland, but the whole Northern Europe towards Asia.
Isabelle Bousquette: And so they have a plan for a route that is going to go from Japan over Alaska through the Northwest Passage and then land in Europe. That project is estimated to cost about $1.2 billion.
Ari-Jussi Knaapila: I would say that definitely this will happen sometime in the next decade. I mean, being ready for service.
Danny Lewis: Who else is throwing their hat in the ring?
Isabelle Bousquette: Quintillion, which is based in Alaska. They’re the ones that laid the fiber-optic cable around the northern coast of Alaska and brought connectivity to Utqiagvik a few years ago. Their broader plan is to extend that Alaska cable east all the way to Europe and west all the way to Asia. But the timeline for doing that is a little hazy. They had some challenges a few years ago related to the fact that their former chief executive officer, Elizabeth Pierce, was arrested for fraud, essentially claiming that they had funding that they didn’t have and then using that to get more funding, and she pleaded guilty for wire fraud and identity theft. Pierce declined to comment through her lawyer, but the company said it is under completely different leadership now and is really committed to doing things in the right way on time and on budget and regaining the trust of the community.
Danny Lewis: Okay. So they’re trying to extend their part in Alaska. When I think of the Arctic, there’s one country that controls a huge stake of the region: Russia. Over half of the Arctic Ocean coastline is controlled by Russia. So what are they trying to do in the next few years?
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah, it’s impossible to ignore Russia in these conversations about the Arctic. There is a Russian project that is currently in the process of building a fiber-optic cable that goes from the northwest corner of Russia along the Arctic coast and then down to the southeast corner. It’s called the Polar Express route, which is fun.
Danny Lewis: Wait, it’s called the Polar Express route?
Isabelle Bousquette: Yeah, that’s what it’s called, Polar Express. As of October 2022, they’ve already laid almost 800 miles, but again, that’s still a small chunk of the total cable, which is going to be almost 8,000 miles long.
Danny Lewis: Wow.
Isabelle Bousquette: And they’re planning to finish that in 2026.
Danny Lewis: So what does this mean for whoever lays the first trans-Arctic fiber-optic cable? What do they win?
Isabelle Bousquette: Well, there’s a huge business proposition. For the Far North Fiber to break even, the cable has to earn at least 80 million per year. There’s also a geopolitical angle to it, and having a secure, reliable flow of information is really important, and it’s a geopolitical advantage to whoever has that secure flow.
Danny Lewis: Okay. We know what’s in it for the companies, but what about everyone else?
Isabelle Bousquette: People in rural towns are going to see what happens in Utqiagvik. Some are going to be able to get better internet, get faster internet, be able to do basic things they couldn’t do before, like stream videos or do Zoom meetings. And yeah, hopefully it’s going to benefit a lot of scientists that are up there doing a lot of really important work on climate change, research, and other things. And there’s things that they can’t do with the level of connectivity they have now that they will be able to do if they get fiber.
Danny Lewis: Okay, so there are a lot of moving parts to this. We talked about those cables that have already been laid and the companies that are looking to install more, but how quickly is this going to happen?
Isabelle Bousquette: Nothing is changing tomorrow. It’s a slow process, for sure. It might not be next year; it might not be the year after that; but maybe 10 years from now, you look at one of those maps of submarine cables, and you don’t see that gap up at the top. And you see one, maybe two, maybe a few crisscrossing cables that are connecting the world in new and in some ways, more efficient ways, and that are also bringing online communities that were very disconnected before that.
Danny Lewis: It’s that trade-off. The world is dramatically changing. It’s opening up some opportunities as a result, and it could make some people’s lives a little better. It’s also still like this very big, complicated thing.
Isabelle Bousquette: Things are definitely changing, and at the end of the day, some things that scientists or other people are trying to do up in the Arctic, it has gotten easier. And Bryan Thomas, the station chief at the Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, summed it up.
Bryan Thomas: I would say it’s like going from black and white TV to color TV or from broadcast television to cable television. You have more information. You have richer information. I would say it’s a change in kind. I wouldn’t say that what we’ve done here has changed that much. I would say that what we’ve done here has become vastly more possible.
Danny Lewis: The Future of Everything is a production of The Wall Street Journal. Stefanie Ilgenfritz is the editorial director of The Future of Everything. This episode was hosted by me, Danny Lewis, and produced by Ariana Aspuru. Thanks to Isabelle Bousquette for her reporting. Our fact-checker is Aparna Nathan. Jessica Fenton and Michael LaValle are our sound designers. Scott Saloway is our supervising producer, and editorial support was provided by Alan Haburchak. Like the show? Tell your friends and leave us a five-star review on your favorite platform. Thanks for listening.