Tina Pidgeon, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer, and Senior Vice President, Governmental Affairs, GCI
The unfortunate reality is that nothing lasts forever. Communications equipment is no exception, especially in Alaska’s harsh environment that takes its toll on even the most durable infrastructure.
In early February, GCI learned that one of our submarine fiber optic cables that carries Sitka’s and Angoon’s Internet and other traffic was damaged and in danger of breaking. Our investigation revealed a section of damaged cable about seven miles west-southwest (“WSW”) of Angoon in Chatham Straits, in water ranging from approximately 900 to almost 2,000 feet deep, and a second area of damaged cable on the far side of Peril Straits near the hazardous Kakul Narrows. We currently believe unusually strong currents and rugged seafloor terrain in these areas caused a breach in the cable’s protective coating and broke several of the fibers that carry the communications traffic.
GCI jumped into overdrive. We dispatched the specialized repair ship that we keep on standby 24-hours a day to begin the 3-day journey from British Columbia to Chatham Straits. We moved traffic affected by the broken fibers to alternative fibers to restore service temporarily. We reached out to our customers and other stakeholders to inform them of the situation and provided regular updates. We implemented backup plans to ensure that essential services to public safety organizations, like 911, and local hospitals would remain fully operational even if the cable broke entirely. A few hours before the repair ship arrived at the site of the damaged cable in Chatham Straits, we moved certain services to backup satellite and terrestrial microwave capacity to ensure continuous service during cable repair activities. While improvements in satellite technology have increased available bandwidth, providing high quality satellite service, especially in the Arctic, requires sophisticated techniques. You cannot simply dump a large volume of traffic onto backup satellite capacity and expect a quality customer experience.
The repair ship arrived at Chatham Straits late Saturday night, February 13, and by 2 a.m. the crew was deploying a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) which dove 900 feet to the ocean floor to find and cut the damaged section of cable, which enabled the ship to bring both ends of the cable to the surface using grapnels. (We couldn’t have asked for a better Valentine’s Day present.) Splicing a single joint of “double armored” submarine cable can take up to 20 hours, and fixing a cut submarine cable requires two splices. After rigorous testing that confirmed an effective repair, the cable was returned to its home on the sea floor and the repair ship immediately began sailing to the second repair site where the whole process was repeated. The final splice of the second repair was completed early Friday morning, February 19, and we turned up customers’ services over the newly repaired cable shortly after – even before we finished the 8 hour process of returning the cable to the sea floor!
As the leading provider of Arctic telecommunications, GCI is intimately familiar with the unique challenges of deploying infrastructure in the Arctic. Submarine cable by design is resilient, but even with a protective sheath and double armoring, a cable just an inch and a half or so in diameter is not always a match for Mother Nature. GCI has previously had submarine cables crushed in underwater rockslides following an earthquake, and broken by a Coast Guard ship’s anchor. As have other providers.
None of this diminishes our enthusiasm for fiber. We have more fiber in our local and middle-mile networks than any other provider in Alaska, and we add more every year. We also continue to explore the possibility of deploying fiber to the remote areas of the Arctic, including in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Unfortunately, the shallow depths mean that blowing icebergs can carve deep gashes into the ocean floor even several miles off the North Slope, potentially breaking submarine cable in the winter while repairs would need to wait for spring. That is not the kind of reliable service our customers need and demand.
When your business is providing communications service in Alaska, you better be ready for the unexpected. It’s not enough to lay the cable, you’ve got to be prepared to repair it. At GCI, we are.
Many thanks to GCI’s dedicated staff and the 48 crew members of the repair ship who worked around the clock to minimize any disruption to our customers in Sitka and Angoon. Thanks also to our customers in these communities for their patience as we made repairs.