High-speed Internet connections will get a bit faster in the next few years, as fiber optic cables get built in the Arctic for the first time.
Three different projects are planned, with the first starting this year. The new cables will connect London and Tokyo, and one will offer branches to Arctic communities in Canada that have largely depended on satellite links.
All three will reduce the time it takes for a piece of data to get from London to Tokyo from about 230 milliseconds to 170 milliseconds. That may not sound like much, but the delay (otherwise known as latency) is noticeable if you're in the financial industry, where profits and losses can depend on how fast you can get a trade through. For more mundane users, a tenth of a second is a noticeable lag when transmitting video.
The new cable routes will be faster because they are shorter, by a good 5,000 miles or so, than the current overland routes that run across the Middle East and through the Indian Ocean and the straits between the various islands in Southeast Asia.
They will also offer some redundancy. The biggest danger to those cables is a passing ship dragging an anchor over them. It's been known to happen — just last month a ship off the coast of Africa damaged a fiber optic cable and slowed Internet connections in several countries in the region. If the same thing were to occur in Southeast Asia, a major route for data and phone traffic would be disrupted. Political instability in many countries the cables currently pass through is also a concern, though so far no government has attempted to deliberately cut the connections.
Two of the cables will run under Canadian waters for much of their length. The first company to start construction is Toronto-based Arctic Fibre. The total length will be 9.693 miles, and it will run from London, south of Greenland, and then to the Northwest Passage, the water route north of Canada, before turning south through the Bering Strait and across the northwestern Pacific to Japan. On the way it will connect some of Canada's Arctic towns, places like Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, Cambridge Bay and Iqaluit in Nunavut. Total cost: $645 million.
The second cable along will be called Arctic Link, built by the Arctic Cable Company, an international consortium. This too, would connect London and Tokyo, and cost $1 billion or more.
The third will be off the coast of Russia and Scandinavia. It is being built by the Polarnet Project and is called the Russian Optical Trans-Arctic Submarine Cable System (ROTACS). The 14,700 mile cable is slated to cost about $2 billion.
All three cables are possible because global warming has meant less ice in the Arctic. From late August to October there are even places where the Northwest Passage is ice-free. That wasn't true in the past (and it's the reason that the Passage wasn't a viable shipping route).
Laying down these cables will be daunting; the ships designed to do it were never designed to operate in the Arctic, which will mean additional ships to help them get through the ice and deploy the cable.
The Northwest Passage captured the imaginations of explorers for centuries; it wasn't sailed successfully until Roald Amundsen did so in1906. Now it's becoming a viable shipping and communications route.
Photo: A map of the Arctic Link route
Credit: Arctic Cable Company