Cut cable causes internet and cellphone outages in Arctic Alaska

A ship in the water
The C/S IT Intrepid begins deploying subsea fiber in Unalaska. (Laurelin Kruse/KUCB)

Residents in North Slope and Northwest Alaska communities have been experiencing internet and cellphone outages this week after a fiber-optic undersea cable was cut, likely by ice.

Quintillion’s president, Mike McHale, said repairs are underway, but a full restoration of service by repair ships could take up to two months.

“This will be a long-term outage,” he said. “We’re talking about probably a six- to eight-week turnaround time for the ship to mobilize and for the ice to clear out of the region, but that is the current situation.”

McHale said Tuesday that the outage is impacting service in Kotzebue, Nome, Point Hope, Wainwright and Utqiagvik. He deferred to individual service providers in those communities for exact figures on affected customers.

GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside said in a statement Tuesday that customers across rural Alaska, especially in the communities McHale mentioned, “may experience slower internet and wireless service” due to the cut cable. GCI has transferred some service to satellite communications as well as its TERRA regional fiber and microwave network.

“GCI is coordinating closely with Quintillion to stay informed about plans for repair and restoral,” Handyside said. “We appreciate our customers’ patience until service is fully restored.”

According to McHale, the subsea cable was cut roughly 34 to 36 miles north of Oliktok Point, northwest of Deadhorse. It happened in waters about 90 feet deep. He likened the “ice scour” event to the seismic grinding that precedes an earthquake.

Quintillion contractors laid some 1,200 miles of fiber-optic cable off Alaska’s northern and northwestern coasts in the summer of 2017 to connect to an overland fiber cable that the company extended from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. (Quintillion graphic)

“It’s in an area where the land-fast ice and the sea ice kind of meet,” he said. “And so ice scour – which is essentially moving ice hitting the land ice and then (sinking) kind of like a tectonic plate – I suppose that it scarred the seabed floor, and then went down below the depth where we were buried.”

Parts of the cable near the cut are buried as deep as 10 feet beneath the seafloor, McHale said, a design feature intended to protect it from the elements. It wasn’t clear Tuesday how deep the cable was buried at the exact point of the cut, which will have to be identified by cameras aboard remotely operated vehicles.

“We decided to be protected against ice – you know, there was great care put into that,” he said. “But you get a force majeure event like – this looks like it was a very aggressive, aggressive event.”

Restoring service is an “all-hands-on-deck” priority for Quintillion, according to McHale, who plans to provide further public updates on Quintillion’s Facebook page. He said the outage is the subsea cable system’s first since service began in 2017.

“We’re the first and only company to attempt to build a subsea fiber optic network in the Arctic, and I think we’ve performed pretty well up to this point,” he said. “But, like I said again – Mother Nature.”

Chris Klint is a web producer and breaking news reporter at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Chris here.

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