Arctic warming creates opportunities for submarine cables

The northern countries are rushing to build submarine communications cables across Arctic waters, as declining ice cover opens up the region to new business opportunities and sharpens geopolitical rivalries between Russia and the West.

The cables designed by a group of companies from Alaska, Finland and Japan, as well as by the Russian government, compete to create a better digital infrastructure in a fragile area but increasingly vital for defense and scientific research.

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About 95% of intercontinental voice and data traffic runs over submarine cables, bundles of fiber optic lines. Today there are more than 400 such cables, with communications speed roughly proportional to the length of each cable.

Since the geographical distance between continents is less in the Arctic than further south, experts believe that a cable across the region would allow even faster communications. The possibility of a route has become more feasible as accelerating warming has opened the area up for development.

A London bank transmitting data to Tokyo could do so 30-40% faster via an arctic route than through existing routes, which start in London and head east through Egypt, says Tim Stronge, an analyst at submarine cable analysis firm TeleGeography. He explained that industries such as defense, oil, gas and fishing, as well as scientists who research the climate in the Arctic, would benefit of faster communications, adding that the communities living there would also have better access to the Internet.

Alaskan company Far North Digital LLC, which has teamed up with Finnish company Cinia Ltd. and Japanese group Arteria Networks Corp., has plans to build a cable through the Northwest Passage, the route that circles northern Alaska and the scattered Canadian islands and loops under Greenland, linking the Atlantic with the Pacific. The company expects to deploy vessels to begin prospecting work in the summer of 2023.

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According to Ethan Berkowitz, co-founder of Far North Digital, the proposed Far North fiber optic route, which is intended to be operational by the end of 2026, would travel approximately 14,000 kilometers, or 8,699 miles, east from Japan, through the Northwest Passage and then on to towards Europe. He stated that the project has been underway for several years.

Berkowitz said that the project has obtained an engineering, procurement and construction contract from Alcatel Submarine Networks and has begun the process of obtaining permits “in various places along the route”. He added that the companies are in advanced talks to finance the project, which is expected to cost roughly 1 billion euros, or $1.04 billion.

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Far North Digital is not the only company claiming the use of the northern border. A Russian state-owned company, Morsvyazsputnik, made headlines in August when it declared that had begun construction of a 12,650-kilometre cable around its northern and eastern coast.

The Russian government has been silent on the matter ever since. TeleGeography’s Stronge commented: “We understand from industry sources that some segments are active.”

As the melting of the Arctic opens up the region to new economic opportunities, the area is becoming more politicized and the subject of geo-economic competition, said Tim Reilly, a researcher at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. He added that Russia’s war in the Ukraine further exacerbated those tensions.

“The strategic question is the silent but ruthless struggle by the government of the region using technological means instead of open conflict“, he nuanced.

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Nima Khorrami, Research Associate at the Arctic Institute, located in Stockholm, commented: “having control of data passing, that, in itself, is a source of power.”

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According to Reilly, the cables represent an intelligence, strategic and economic advantage. They could help countries manage and intercept big data, better control guided missiles based on space and satellites that offer content and services as a means of global influence.

“With the probable admission of Finland to NATO, as well as Sweden, it will make possible a type of communication that we would not otherwise have,” argued Berkowitz. “This route is safer and depends least of the non-NATO members.

But building a submarine cable in the frigid waters of the arctic is no easy task, according to Matt Peterson, chief technology officer for Quintillion Subsea Operations, LLC, which operates a 1,180-mile submarine cable around the Alaskan coast.

The first difficulty is that building or working on the cable only possible during the summer monthswhen ice sheets do not cover the surface of the water, he explained.

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Another risk is that when ice sheets move, especially in the shallower waters surrounding Alaska, they run the risk of cutting the fiber. It adds that Quintillion contracted Alcatel Submarine Networks to create a marine plow capable of burying the cable at large depth below the seabed to avoid that problem.

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Like Far North Digital, Quintillion is also planning to lay new cable. wait to complete the construction of a stretch connecting Alaska with Asia in about three yearsand then start with a section between Canada and Europe.

According to Berkowitz, Arctic ice has its advantages. Many of the problems with submarine cables are due to ships and anchors dragging and tearing the bottom. “Those problems don’t happen when there’s an ice sheet,” she explained.

Berkowitz said that I had been thinking about an arctic cable for a decade, before the melting of the region made it more realistic the idea. “This is essential infrastructure,” she said.

“For me it’s a matter of looking at a map and seeing a need”he claimed.

*Content licensed from “The Wall Street Journal”

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