Intercontinental Arctic Fiber

Global warming has melted so much Arctic ice that telecommunications firms are moving forward with projects that were unthinkable just a few years ago: laying underwater fiber optic cable between Tokyo and London through the Artic Circle. The route is the shortest underwater path between Tokyo and London.

The proposed systems will 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, in charge of Arctic Link.

Starting this summer, a convoy of ice breakers and specially-adapted polar ice-rated cable laying ships will begin to lay the first ever trans-Arctic Ocean submarine fiber optic cables, reports Extreme Tech.

Three separate cables are being laid. Arctic Link and Artic Fibre will cross the Northwest Passage which runs through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

A third cable, the Russian Optical Trans-Arctic Submarine Cable System (ROTACS), will skirt the north coast of Scandinavia and Russia. All three cables will connect the United Kingdom to Japan, with a smattering of branches that will provide high-speed internet access to a handful of Arctic Circle communities. The completed cables are estimated to cost between $600 million and $1.5 billion each.

All three cables are being laid for the same reasons, says ExtremeTech: Redundancy and speed. It currently takes roughly 230 milliseconds for a packet to go from London to Tokyo; the new cables will reduce this by 30% to 170ms. Currently these routes racking up around 15,000 miles. It’s only 10,000 miles (16,000km) across the Arctic Ocean, and with fewer land crossings.

Redundancy is the main objective. Currently, almost every cable that lands in Asia goes through a choke point in the Middle East or the Luzon Strait between the Philippine and South China seas. If a ship were to drag an anchor across the wrong patch of seabed, billions of people could be disconnected from the internet or reduced to dial-up-like speeds. The three new cables will all come down from the north of Japan, through the relatively-empty Bering Sea.

Sea ice and icebergs pose unique challenges, notes New Scientist. Ships rated to work in ice-ridden waters are needed to lay the cable, and operations are possible for only a few months of the year.

Global broadband wireline subscribers reached 597 million at the end of 2011 and is projected to have passed the 600 million threshold this quarter, according to figures from the Broadband Forum.

For a complete (and interactive) view of the world’s 188 planned and active submarine cables, check out Greg’s Cable Map or TeleGeography.

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