NEWS: Nunavut January 24, 2012 - 2:22 pm

Fibre optic cable headed for Canadian Arctic?

“Without it, the economic divide (between north and south) will only grow wider.”

SARAH ROGERS

An Ontario-based telecommunications firm has come up with a big plan to improve bandwidth in the Canadian Arctic.

And the plan requires replacing Telesat’s satellite beams – which currently feed most of Nunavut’s cell phone and Internet services – with a 15,000-kilometre fibre-optic cable line that would run through the Northwest Passage, connecting Asia to Europe.

Doug Cunningham, president of Arctic Fibre Inc., says the fibre optic line fills a tremendous need in Canada’s North.
“That is to satisfy a social goal: to provide the necessary bandwidth to people in remote Arctic communities,” Cunningham said.

“Without it, the economic divide (between north and south) will only grow wider.”

Starting in 2013, Arctic Fibre plans to lay a fibre optic cable line that would run from Japan under the Pacific Ocean to the Northwest Passage, where it would connect to a number of Nunavut communities: Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak, Igloolik, Hall Beach, Cape Dorset and Iqaluit.

From there, the line would continue across the Atlantic, via Newfoundland, to link up to Europe.

The route would divert from traffic from cumbersome telecommunication routes, Cunningham said, such as through California’s fault lines, and provide a more direct route to connect the world.

Arctic Fibre’s proposed route is expected to run somewhere between 15,137 to 15,600 kilometres, cutting up to 3,000 km off current international telecommunications routes.

“So we will be shorter, faster and therefore, cleaner,” Cunningham said.

But it’s the cost of the plan that has some skeptical of its success: Cunningham pegs the capital cost of the sweeping telecommunications plan at $640 million.

Cunningham is confident, however, that Arctic Fibre can allocate 60 per cent of those costs to international carriers outside of Canada.

And the Canadian portion of the plan should run about $270 million, he estimates, the bulk of which, Cunningham says, could be paid for within the CRTC’s annual contribution regime.

Cunningham says that would require the CRTC to redirect the roughly $158 million it now pays out to northern providers (such as Telesat via Northwestel, the primary supplier of telecommunications to Canada’s North.)

“The bulk will be displaced revenues from Telesat,” he said.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but these fibre optic cables have a long lifespan, longer than Telesat (satellites),” he said. “They’re designed to last 25 years, but we’ve seen [cables] going strong for 32 years now.”

Cunningham said Arctic Fibre has been in contact with the Government of Nunavut and federal departments — who have yet to pledge official support to the plan by way of subsidies — but whom Cunningham already describes as “significant users of our network.”

“There’ll be a tremendous pick-up for everyone involved,” he said. “We’re trying to reduce the cost of government by increasing the calibre of services.”

With better bandwidth, Nunavut can cut down on many services by streamlining them through improved telecommunications technology, he said.

Increased bandwidth would also provide a boost to the new High Arctic Research Station and the Canadian Forces’ annual military operation in Resolute Bay.

Arctic Fibre has also initiated discussion with Northwestel, Cuninngham said.

“We’re not competing with them but providing them with bandwidth, as we will to other companies likes SSi Micro, and Qiniq,” he said. “This will facilitate competition.”

Arctic Fibre already has plans in place to start building the first phase of its network in 2013: a fibre optic line that will run from Newfoundland to Iqaluit.

TE SubCom, which specializes in underwater communications, will act as the primary contractor to lay the cable between the two locations in the summer of 2013.

Crews will load 150-metre-long boats with as much as 6,000 to 7,000 kilometres of single-armoured fibre at a time, Cunningham explained, which will be spooled out, “like a garden hose.”

In shallow areas, a plough will dig a trench in which the cable will laid out and buried.

Cunningham said current plans only allow for connection to the most easily accessible communities in Canada’s Arctic.

But future phases could include a spur line, or extension, into Ungava Bay to connect to Kuujjuaq and other Nunavik communities, and later into Hudson Bay to connect communities on either coastline.

Cunningham estimates that the fibre optic line can meet 88 per cent of the Arctic’s bandwidth requirements.

Cunningham will be speaking at the Northern Lights Trade Show in Ottawa Feb. 2.