Global warming has melted so much Arctic ice that a telecommunication group is moving forward with a project that was unthinkable just a few years ago: laying underwater fiber optic cable between Tokyo and London by way of the Northwest Passage.
The proposed system would nearly cut in half the time it takes to send messages from the United Kingdom to Asia, said Walt Ebell, CEO of Kodiak-Kenai Cable Co. The route is the shortest underwater path between Tokyo and London.
The quicker transmission time is important in the financial world where milliseconds can count in executing profitable trades and transactions. "Speed is the crux," Ebell said. "You're cutting the delay from 140 milliseconds to 88 milliseconds."
The project, while still facing many significant obstacles, also serves as an example of how warming has altered the Arctic landscape in profound ways.
The loss of summer sea ice prompted the U.S. to list polar bears as a threatened species in May 2008. Walrus in two of the last three years gathered by the thousands on Alaska's northwest shore rather than ride pack ice to unproductive waters beyond the outer continental shelf.
Summer sea ice melted to its lowest recorded level ever in late 2007, and most climate modelers predict a continued downward spiral. The result is a path through the Northwest Passage, the Arctic route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific that has fascinated explorers for centuries.
"That opens up the construction window to actually do something like this without the need of heavy icebreakers," Ebell said. "On the other side, you've got the market part of it and the increasing demand we're seeing for lower and lower latencies, or transmission times."
$1.2 billion cost
But the project, called ArcticLink, is not without hurdles — namely the estimated construction price of $1.2 billion, said Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography Research, a Washington, D.C.-based telecommunications market research company.
"That's not a cheap project," he said by phone from the Slovak Republic.
By comparison, a line beginning service next month between Japan and the U.S. West Coast was built for $300 million, he said.
The leaders of the project will need to persuade telecommunications companies to buy a piece of the capacity created by the cable. Telecom companies will make that decision largely based on demand from financial companies.
"What we've seen is just because you have a diverse path does not mean that you can necessarily sell that capacity for much more than the current market price," Mauldin said.
Ebell uses the analogy of building a shopping mall to describe the financing process: Secure some initial investments and then lure an anchor tenant to really drive the project forward.
The cable would cut a 10,000-mile path across half the world: It would be laid in deep water from Japan to the Aleutian Islands, then traverse north through the relatively shallow waters of the Bering Sea.
The line would need a regeneration station — essentially a booster of the signal to compensate for the long distance — on the northern coast of Alaska, probably at Prudhoe Bay. From there, it would wend its way through the Northwest Passage, then dip around the southern tip of Greenland and across the North Atlantic to the United Kingdom.
Branches off the line would provide access to the East Coast of the U.S., ensuring quicker transmission times between Tokyo and New York, Ebell said.
"It will provide the domestic market an alternative route not only to Europe — there's lots of cable across the Atlantic — but it will provide the East Coast with an alternative, faster route to Asia as well," he said.
Avoiding 'choke points'
The cable would pass mostly through U.S., Canadian international waters and avoid possible trouble spots along the way.
"You're not susceptible to 'events,' I should say, that you might run into with a cable that runs across Russia or the cables that run down around Asia and go up through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. You're getting away from those choke points."
Ebell's Anchorage-based company is partnering with KhaNNet, part of Khanjee Holdings, Inc., on the project, and the partners are pursuing financing.
The company also hopes to link rural Alaska communities to the cable. It has applied for $350 million in federal stimulus money, nearly 5 percent of that total for broadband grant and loan program, for lines to eight hub communities in western and northern Alaska. The Asia-Europe line does not depend on stimulus money, Ebell said.