A digital hub blooms in Arctic's melting ice

A digital hub blooms in Arctic's melting ice

Point Hope is one of the most remote towns in the United States, a small gravel spit on the northwest coast of Alaska, more than 3,700 miles from New York City. Icy seas surround it on three sides, leaving only an unpaved path to the mainland.

Getting here from Anchorage, about 700 miles away, requires two flights. Roads do not connect the two places. Basics like milk and bread are delivered by air, and gas is brought in by barge during the summer.

"I don't know if people even know that we exist," said Daisy Sage, the mayor. Needless to say, this is not the sort of place you expect to be a hub of the high-tech digital world.

But in a surprising, and bittersweet, side effect of global warming - and of the global economy - one of the fastest internet connections in America will soon be delivered to Point Hope's 700 or so residents, giving them their first taste of broadband speeds.

The new connection is part of an ambitious effort by Quintillion, a 5-year-old company based in Anchorage, to take advantage of the melting sea ice to build a faster digital link between London and Tokyo.

High-speed internet cables snake under the world's oceans, tying continents together and allowing email and other bits of digital data sent from Japan to arrive quickly in Britain. Until recently, those lines mostly bypassed the Arctic, where the ice blocked access to the ships that lay the cable.

But as the ice has receded, new passageways have emerge, creating a more direct path for the cable - over the Earth's northern end through places like the Chukchi Sea - and helping those emails move even more quickly. Quintillion is one of the companies laying the new cable, and Point Hope is one of the places along its route.

Financial companies would certainly welcome - and pay for - a faster connection between London and Toyko. Over the past decade, traders have increasingly relied on powerful computer programmes to buy and sell securities at huge volumes and lightning speeds.

A millisecond can be the difference between a big profit and a big loss. Quintillion's faster connection would also appeal to the operators of data stations around the world that store and send information for social media sites, online retailers and the billions of gadgets that now connect to the internet.

But it will be years before the full connections between countries are made. For now, Quintillion's undersea cables are just around the northern part of Alaska, and the company is taking advantage of a nascent business boom in the Arctic. Oil, shipping and mining companies that can benefit from a faster internet are rushing into the more open waters.

Quintillion is also teaming up with local telecommunications companies to use the undersea cables to bring faster internet service to some of the nation's most disconnected communities.

In Point Hope, the new connection could mean better healthcare, as patients in the town and doctors in faraway cities communicate via seamless webcast. It could help improve education, too. Teachers, now used to waiting hours to download course materials, will be able to do it in minutes.

Many of Point Hope's older residents cringe at the incursion of technology. For the most part, this is still a traditional community of Inupiaq native Alaskans. Until the 1970s, many families lived in sod houses framed with whale bones.

People here also have no illusions about the overall effect of global warming. They see the waters rising and worry about sea mammals disappearing. They rely on the sea for food, and their year is built around festivals for berry picking and whaling.

"Inupiaq people are taught to be patient," said Steve Oomittuk, a leading local whale hunter whose family has lived in Point Hope for many generations. "We wait for animals to come to us for our food, our shelter, our medicine, our clothing. The internet makes people impatient for everything. This is not our way of life."

But interviews with dozens of Point Hope residents suggest that people here see Quintillion's cable as a way of connecting with an outside world that has long been beyond easy reach - and something that could change their lives for the better.

Leona Snyder, for one, is excited about what the connection could do for her 15-year-old son, Justice Jones. She wants him to go to college, which would mean leaving the village. Having broadband internet could help him study and research outside opportunities. "Internet means exposure to the world," she said. "I want that for Justice. I want him to be a judge. Judge Justice Jones. It has a ring to it, don't you think?"

Navigating the ice In June, three ships carrying huge rolls of cable travelled through waters in the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea to lay the final miles of Quintillion's undersea internet network. The boats unfurled 40 miles of fibre optic cable into the dark, choppy water.

An enormous shovelling tool ploughed the sea floor and buried the cables for protection. It was the final stretch of a 1,200-mile network connecting six coastal towns, including Kotzebue, Nome and Point Hope.

"A project like this has been discussed for 20-plus years but was formidable from a cost and weather standpoint," said Tim Woolston, a Quintillion spokesman. "The ice situation has evolved to the point where it's now physically possible."

Role of local forces

An infusion from Cooper Investment Partners, a private equity firm in New York, has helped Quintillion finance the laying of the cable. The company would not say how much the network had cost to build so far. But it insisted that supplying high-speed internet service to an estimated 20,000 people along the cable's route would be a good business.

Although that is a relatively small number of people, Quintillion believes it will increase along with what the company expects to be broader commercial growth in the region driven by oil and mineral exploration. With broadband service available, Quintillion is also betting that more data centres, research centres, hospitals and schools will make the Arctic Circle home.

In the meantime, Quintillion is offsetting some of its costs by joining forces with local telecom companies along its path to sell the internet service directly to customers. In Point Hope, several local companies, including the Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, have rushed to prepare homes. Alaska Communications, another telecom, has signed up city offices and businesses at other sites.

The people here are already thinking that the new broadband lines could transform the local economy. The one general store, the Native Store, will be able to more easily order new supplies. The phone association has put computer terminals into the City Hall building to provide free internet service to the public.

Point Hope's transportation director is building a conference centre with Wi-Fi and web video conferencing above a bus garage to host state events. Artists are planning to sell native crafts and jewellery online.

In late November, about 25 residents, including the mayor, gathered at City Hall and talked about how internet service could turn Point Hope, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities of North America, into a tourist destination with a museum that would have interactive displays and a website.

"The trigger to all of this is lower-cost broadband that will bring a whole new economy and hope to places like Point Hope," said Jens Laipenieks, president of the Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative.

Liked the story?

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0

  • 0