Author: Cecilia Kang

Posted on: New York Times| December 2nd, 2017


POINT HOPE, Alaska — This 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 is arriving in Point Hope, giving the 700 or so residents their first taste of broadband speed.

The new connection is part of an ambitious effort by Quintillion, a five-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 emerged, 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 move 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 programs 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 health care, 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 now 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 Justice Jones, who turns 16 on Sunday. 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 traveled 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 fiber optic cable into the dark, choppy water. An enormous shoveling tool plowed 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.”

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.

Quintillion makes money leasing the bandwidth from its undersea cable network to local telecoms that then bring internet service directly to homes and businesses in Alaska. The company has not announced its business plans for connecting internet service between Asia and Europe, but will probably use a similar model.

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 centers, research centers, hospitals and schools will make the Arctic Circle home.

Other broadband-internet providers have the same idea. Cinia, a telecom company owned by the Finnish government, has completed the first stage of a multiyear plan to lay a subsea broadband network between Europe and Asia through the Arctic Ocean. Cinia, which expects the Arctic network to cost about $700 million, just completed the first leg, from Germany to Finland.

Today, much of the internet communications between the continents run through Asia, including through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The shorter route planned by Cinia would bring a 35 percent decrease in latency, or delay, the company said.

“The financial sector wants the shortest route for trading, and we are talking about fractions of milliseconds, but it makes a difference,” Ari-Jussi Knaapila, Cinia’s chief executive, said in an interview. Multiplayer video games that connect participants around the world also demand faster internet traffic with less delay, he added.

After Alaska, Quintillion plans to bring its undersea cables to Asia. A third stage would extend the network to Europe. The company would not predict how long the project would take to complete.

In the meantime, Quintillion is offsetting some of its costs by joining forces with local telecom companies 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 fiber network will bring connection speeds of 200 gigabits per second to the village, among the fastest rates in the country. Point Hope will not feel the full effect right away. Residential customers will initially be able get service at 10 megabits per second under plans starting $24.99 a month, while service will be faster for businesses.

That is still 10 times faster than the existing phone-line connections here, and good enough for streaming video on a service like Netflix. The companies said they planned to offer faster speeds if demand warrants doing so.

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 order new supplies more easily. The phone association has installed computer terminals at City Hall to provide free internet service to the public. Point Hope’s transportation director is building a conference center with Wi-Fi and web video conferencing above a bus garage to host state events. Artists are planning to sell native crafts and jewelry online.

Last month, 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 in North America, into a tourist destination with a museum with interactive displays and a website. The village’s small motel with 20 beds would offer Wi-Fi.

“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.

A Place a Step Ahead

Nome, a few hundred miles to the south and with 4,000 residents, offers a glimpse into Point Hope’s future. Climate change, and broadband connections, have already altered education and commerce.

With the warming of the Bering Sea, the Crystal Serenity cruise ship, 820 feet long and with a capacity of more than 1,000 passengers, has started to anchor offshore, bringing new tourism. The ship has only recently been able to navigate around the ice.

If local politicians have their way, it will be only the beginning. They are lobbying the state to build a deep water port so that even larger cruise ships can dock in Nome. The officials have indicated Quintillion’s broadband service improves its case to state officials, who want to make sure Coast Guard and tourist boats will have access to high-speed internet service.

“The future is here and there is not anything changing that,” said Richard Beneville, Nome’s mayor, who also runs a tour company.

Nome has had broadband internet service for years. The arrival of Quintillion’s lines, which were turned on Dec. 1, will make the connections much faster.

Like the changes that Point Hope is experiencing, the ones in Nome worry some residents. Austin Ahmasuk, a marine environmentalist who lives along the coast, is among them. He is concerned that the change will dilute some of the local culture and result in harm to the environment.

“The very thing that kept most global development away from the north — ice — is disappearing in all its formats,” Mr. Ahmasuk said. “History shows that outside people don’t have the same interest in our culture and environment.”

But residents here are mostly embracing having a stronger connection with the rest of the world.

Early on a weekday evening, Bryan and Maggie Muktoyuk organized more than a dozen people at the Lutheran Church on Bering Street for a weekly rehearsal of native dance and drums.

Seated in a row, men and teenage boys pounded on round drums made of stretched walrus stomach. Women with mittens and ornate mukluk boots swayed their hips to the beat.

Ms. Muktoyuk held up her iPhone and, with a Wi-Fi connection, started to stream a video of the rehearsal on Facebook. Mr. Muktoyuk had set up a group page on the social network for other native dancers around the Alaska’s North Slope region.


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