Twenty-Four Milliseconds: Why the Arctic Is Going Fiber-Optic
Work is set to begin on the internet’s most extreme backbone, thanks to climate change.
Image: Mike Beauregard/Flickr
In 24 milliseconds a honey bee will flap its wings five times—a common housefly, eight. A camera in average light conditions will be able to record two images. In 24 milliseconds, the human brain will have had insufficient time to process sensory input (it takes about 80). Every 150 or so years, Earth's rotation will have slowed by about 24 milliseconds.
Once Arctic Fiber, a Toronto-based telco upstart, finishes laying a new tendril of fiber-optic cable underneath the Arctic Ocean (and portions of the Atlantic and Pacific), the first to bridge the polar gap, internet transmission speeds between Japan and the UK will be 24 milliseconds faster. The price tag for those 24 milliseconds: $850 million.
The project will start work this spring, with the hope of being operational by 2016. Arctic Fiber will lay 15,600 kilometers of cable in total, following a route from Tokyo to Alaska, along the newly-opened Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic, and then directly across the North Atlantic, finishing its journey in London. The total travel time for a packet of optical information between the line's two termini will be 154 milliseconds.
There's more to it than 24 milliseconds, however—part of the project's larger mission is bringing fast internet service to Arctic communities that currently lack it, bridging the digital divide. Iqaluit, the capital of Canada's Nunavet province is one example; not far from the city, the cable will emerge from Hudson Bay via a beach manhole, from which a branch will connect to the city's existing tower-based telecommunications infrastructure.
Currently, much of northern Canada gets its internet via satellite (pretty much the only option in remote areas anywhere), which is basically like having dial-up, but dial-up connected to some rickety old phone line prone to blackouts and throttling. It's not an internet most of us would recognize.
"The biggest benefit [of the cable] is really to those residents in communities in Alaska and to the Canadian Arctic who will be released from their satellite captivity," Doug Cunningham, Arctic Fiber's CEO and president, told IEEE Spectrum. "For many people in the Canadian North, YouTube is a dream." All told, the project is expected to bring modern internet speeds to 57,000 Canadians and 26,500 Alaskans.
That's all fine and good, but those 24 milliseconds are still at the very root of the thing. Stock and currency trading over the past several years has entered a bizarro world where making money is more and more a function of communications technology than anything else. A fraction of a second lead is a huge advantage for traders (high-frequency traders, specifically). This is so much so that a $850 million data pipeline is a relative bargain.
In an NPR interview last April, Moneyball author Michael Lewis put it like this: "If I get price changes before everybody else, if I know a stock price is going up or going down before you, I can act on it. If you're coming in to buy shares in Procter & Gamble and you think the price is 80 ... and I'm sitting there as a high-frequency trader and I know that the price of Procter & Gamble is actually lower—it's gone down [to] 79—I can buy it [at] 79 and sell it to you at 80. So it's a bit like knowing the result of the horse race before it's run."
And thus: technology.
Arctic Fiber's 24 seconds indeed come at the cost of a warming climate. It was only six years ago that ships began using the newly opened sliver of open water through the Canadian Arctic. It's this sliver, or "pinhole," that will allow cable-laying barges to thread the new line through the passage. A project Q&A notes that Arctic's fleet may come armed with icebreaker support if needed, but assures that the project is fully doable.
Others aren't quite so optimistic. Arctic fiber-optic cables exist currently—one a decade-old in Norway and another more recent line linking Greenland to mainland Canada—but the full-scale, Arctic bridge of Arctic Fiber's scheme isn't assured, despite the enthusiastic financial backing of New York private equity firms.
In a recent Arctic Yearbook report, Michael Delaunay countered that, "such an endeavor has never been accomplished in the icy waters of the Arctic where the actual ice and the short window of operations to install (or maintain) the cables are obvious challenges. The climate may be a serious obstacle, both for laying and repairs.
"For now, the Arctic is only ice-free three months a year, in the summer," Delaunay wrote. "Even during this period, ice can block ships from entering and/or transiting the NWP, as was the case in 2013 when the ice pack did not recede as expected." This past summer saw the opening of the Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage's Russian/Asian analog, delayed due to ice conditions, impacting the entire economy of the region.
The project's viability is uniquely vulnerable and this has everything to do with those 24 milliseconds. At one point, the cable will be forced ashore on a superremote Arctic peninsula. Here engineers will be forced to carve—with help from rock saws and heavy trenching equipment—a gash through 50 kilometers of bulletproof tundra. Cable will be airlifting in and the line itself will be laid using sleds and snowmobiles. It won't be easy.
The only alternative is making an 1,800 kilometer detour around the land mass, a hitch that not only would add over $100 million to the project's price-tag, but will negate the slight time advantage sought by Arctic Fiber's backers, as explained in a FAQ.
In a very real sense, the fate of Arctic internet connectivity is in the hands of high-frequency traders. There is surely a lesson in that.