Internet outage closes government offices, businesses and university campus in Kotzebue

the Northwest Arctic Borough building in Kotzebue
The Northwest Arctic Borough building in Kotzebue. (Desiree Hagen/KOTZ)

On Sunday morning, many Kotzebue residents woke up to find their internet down and cell phones without service. Several days later, there’s still little to no communications in or out, and it might be two months until services are restored to normal.

According to a statement from Quintillion, which connects most of Northern Alaska, ice was the culprit. On Monday, Quintillion reported a fiber optic subsea cable in the Arctic Ocean had been cut, essentially severing the main artery of communications for most of rural Alaska west of Prudhoe Bay. They said it will likely take two months until the cable — located about 30 miles from Oliktok Point and 90 feet under the ice — can be repaired.

The cable break is primarily impacting the hub cities of Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue and Utqiagvik. 

In Kotzebue, the outage is affecting local government operations. The City of Kotzebue’s Facebook page said Monday that the city is experiencing a “complete outage” to all departments. And Northwest Arctic Borough officials say their telephone and internet services are down.

Kelly Williams is the CEO of OTZ Telephone, a Kotzebue-based communications cooperative that provides internet, phone and cellular service to the region. Before his current position with OTZ, Williams worked designing and building fiber optic cables across the country. 

“That cable was going to get cut eventually,” Williams said. “Fiber optic cable is made of glass, it’s a tiny little glass tube and with the impact that ice can have, there’s an inherent risk there.”

Williams said many of the remote communities in Northwest Arctic are unaffected by the break. Villages in the region are mostly serviced by “a mixture of technologies,” he said, including low Earth orbiting and geosynchronous satellites.

“All the 10 village communities we serve are still up and running fine,” Williams said. “Kotzebue is the only area that’s affected in the OTZ serving area.”

For OTZ customers in Kotzebue, Williams said the communications outage only knocked out broadband internet. What he called vital services — cellular, calling and texting — were still operational due to backup systems.

Heather Handyside, the chief communications officer for GCI, compared the fiber optic cable to a highway — one that’s been blocked. Now, GCI customers have to take a detour — they can get back online with satellite and microwave technology. 

“It’s critical, especially in places like rural Alaska with unpredictable conditions, unpredictable weather, typhoons, earthquakes, wildfires, that there are backup systems,” she said. “Even if we can’t deliver the same level of connectivity, we will at least be able to deliver a basic level for phone calls, emails, text messages. ”

But the backup internet service is still spotty and slow. As of Tuesday afternoon, many businesses in Kotzebue were unable to process credit card payments. Some even closed. The University of Fairbanks Chukchi Campus and library remain closed until further notice following the outage.

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