Ongoing internet outage hamstrings 911, other vital services in Northwest Alaska

The Utqiagvik coastline, in a residential area near downtown. (Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

It’s been a week since ice severed a fiber optic cable in the Arctic Ocean, cutting communications to at least half a dozen communities in Northwest Alaska. Many are still without internet or cellular service, and the company that owns the cable says it will be two months until the line is repaired. 

The break is disrupting normal life for many communities above the Arctic Circle — including vital emergency services.

The cable connected most of Northwest Alaska. Quintillion, the Alaska-based company that owns the line, says the break primarily affected Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright and Utqiagvik, as well as the villages of Atqasuk and Nuiqsut. 

Last Wednesday, the North Slope Borough issued an emergency declaration stating that the fiber break would “severely impact” the ability to provide essential services such as search and rescue, police, fire and utilities.

Atqasuk is feeling the break’s repercussions. Doug Whiteman is mayor of the community of about 300 people, which is 60 miles southwest of Utqiagvik. He says emergency communications aren’t working like they should between communities.

“We had a circumstance with 911 calls. The village police officer could call Barrow and they could hear, but their replies didn’t come back,” he said. “It’s a one way conversation.”

Whiteman says the borough is advising the community to stay off what limited internet is available. He says right now, public safety, the health clinic and fire are all sharing one satellite phone.

Further south, Wainwright — a community of nearly 700 people — is encountering similar challenges.

Mayor Chester Ekak says Wainwright is having problems with their 911 services, too. They also experienced one way communication with emergency services in Utqiagvik, which forced them to find a work-around.

“We had to set up a temporary dispatch facility and utilize VHF for police, fire and ambulance callout,” he said.

He says it’s not just emergency response that’s ground to a halt. It’s also daily life.

“It’s affecting businesses’ day-to-day operations. Stores turned into cash-only stores — they all were affected by the cable break,” he said.

Ekak says the ATMs require an internet connection, so now customers can’t withdraw money for the cash-only businesses. And Ekak says it’s also affecting people who receive assistance like EBT because they can’t use their cards.

Businesses in Kotzebue are also feeling the effects. Lewis Pagel is the owner and lead physician at Arctic Chiropractic. He says his office is without internet, which means he can’t process insurance billing, and his patients can’t schedule appointments.

“Also, my credit card machine won’t work either. So I can’t collect payments at the office. So from a financial standpoint, it’s pretty detrimental,” he said.

Pagel’s office isn’t alone. Kotzebue City Manager Tessa Baldwin says the fiber break is disrupting government operations — and that the city is unable to connect to their server, internet and phone.

“The city is without internet, and  I went over there yesterday morning to pay my business taxes. But they can’t process anything,” she said. “We’re very lucky that our emergency services are still in operational mode.”

This week, Baldwin says the city was scrambling with payroll. They were able to resolve the issue, and now over 100 people employed by the city will be receiving their checks — a few days late.

“It’s been extremely difficult to manage a city with no internet or phone service,” she said.

Baldwin says there have been other issues including meeting the city’s grant deadlines and communicating with city partners outside of Kotzebue.

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