Story last updated at 8/13/2014 - 2:50 pm
Look under the surface of Cross Sound, south of Glacier Bay National Park, and you’ll find Facebook. Google is there, too, as is the picture of the cat you just posted on Instagram.
They all live side-by-side in a handful of hair-thin strands of fiber optic cable that run from Juneau to an anonymous point deep beneath the surface of the Gulf of Alaska. There, the cable joins another, slightly bigger cable that snakes north and south to Whitter and Oregon. Others run in parallel, linking Southcentral Alaska to the Lower 48.
It’s all part of the invisible infrastructure that brings high-speed Internet to Southeast Alaska. These 2,000-mile-long cables are astounding engineering feats, but an earthquake last month revealed the fragility of the network Alaska depends upon.
On the morning of July 25, Michael Todd got the call every network administrator dreads — the Internet was down. When that call comes to Todd, it’s especially bad. He’s the senior vice president of engineering and operations for Alaska Communications and oversees that company’s network in Alaska.
“This one was a big one for us,” he explained by phone from his Anchorage office. “We don’t normally see these kinds of things happen.”
At 2:45 a.m. July 25, the ground shook in Glacier Bay National Park. It woke light sleepers in Juneau and turned seismograph needles at the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks, which measured it as a magnitude 5.9 temblor.
The closer you were to the epicenter, the worse the shaking was. “We just sat here and shook like a bowl full of jelly,” Gustavus Mayor Sandi Marchbanks told the Juneau Empire.
Beneath Cross Sound, the shaking jarred a hill of sediment created by glacier-fed rivers over thousands of years. “They’re stable under gravity loading, but it doesn’t take much shaking for them to go,” said professional engineer Robert Scher, who described a typical underwater landslide in Southeast. “It’s very loose, and it’s fragile material; it doesn’t take much vibration to create a submarine landslide.”
The 15-year-old Alaska Communications cable, named NorthStar, is carried by the landslide, which by now is almost liquid in its movements. A portion of the cable catches on a rock outcropping that has resisted the slide. Part of the cable suddenly jars to a halt, while the rest keeps moving. The force is too much for the cable, which ruptures.
In Juneau, phone lines and Internet connections suddenly go dead. In Anchorage, alarms are going off.
“As you can imagine, about 3 o’clock in the morning, alarms started showing up in our network monitoring center,” Todd said. “They pulled out the playbook and started making the phone calls and making the notifications.”
The engineers soon realized they weren’t looking at an unplugged wire or a faulty piece of hardware — they were looking at a problem with the cable itself.
For a moment, they were stymied — Alaska Communications has multiple ways to carry phone and Internet service to Anchorage and Fairbanks, but only one Alaska Communications cable leads to Juneau.
When that link is broken, what can you do?
RINGS AND SPURS
Undersea cables have linked Southeast Alaska to the outside world for more than a century. In May 1900, the U.S. Congress directed the War Department build and operate a telegraph cable connecting Alaska’s principal military posts and cities.
The Klondike Gold Rush had spurred a flood of immigrants northward, and the only communications to isolated Alaska were by steamship or by telegraph through Canada — unacceptable in the event of war with Canada and Great Britain.
In August 1901, Skagway, Haines and Juneau were linked by short undersea cables. In 1904, the SS Burnside — a ship captured and renamed during the Spanish-American War — laid cables from Seattle to Sitka and Sitka to Valdez. Shorter links connected this long route to Southeast communities like Wrangell, Ketchikan and Juneau.
By modern standards, the cables were primitive. Thin copper wires were surrounded by layers of gutta-percha, the waterproof, insulating sap of an Asian gum tree. To protect the soft gum, steel wires were wrapped around the cable.
That protection was a poor fix for Alaska. In 1911, the governor’s report to the Department of the Interior reported the cable was broken 50 times in one year. The 1927 report says service was interrupted for 188 days, 8 hours and 21 minutes — more than half the year.
The reason for the frequent breakages is Southeast Alaska’s seafloor. Beneath the surface of the ocean is a layer of silt deposited by rivers and melting glaciers. “It’s very loose material that’s coming off these glacial rivers,” Scher said.
The silt shifts in Southeast Alaska’s currents, causing the slow-motion sandblasting of anything on the seafloor. The currents also move unburied cables, brushing and bashing them against rocks. “Within these many narrow straits, currents abraiding the sea floor heavily chafed the cables. … Chafe was the principal factor in at least 100 cable interruptions,” wrote oceanographers Bruce Heezen and G. Leonard Johnson in 1969.
Anchors dropped by fishing boats broke cables, fishing trawls broke cables, even whales rooting in the seafloor broke cables.
Though the connections were at times unreliable, Alaskans loved being able to call and send telegrams to their friends and family. Copper wires could only carry so many messages, and more and more cables were laid to meet demand — 86 between 1901 and 1960 alone, according to Heezen and Johnson.
While technology improved the cables’ durability — plastic replaced gutta-percha and steel armoring improved — cable capacity didn’t improve in the same way.
At the core of each cable was still a string of copper wire. Thicker cables could carry more phone calls, but the cables still ran on a simple principle: one wire, one connection. As Alaskans bought computers and began to connect to the Internet, the communications crunch became an acute problem.
The solution came with a new technology called fiber-optics. Instead of a copper wire transmitting electrical codes, signals were sent using long strands of spun glass that transmitted light. The first fiber-optic cables could carry thousands of clear-channel phone signals in a fiber no thicker than a few human hairs. As technology improved, they began carrying the equivalent of hundreds of thousands, then millions of simultaneous phone calls.
Before fiber optics, phone signals and computer signals were different. Now, they’re considered identical data from the point of view of the cables and networks involved. Only the destination differs.
The first cables were laid from Oregon and Washington to Southcentral Alaska. Learning the lessons of earlier cables, these fiber-optic lines were laid deep at sea, away from the glacier-fed rivers and currents that caused so much trouble.
This was great news for Anchorage, but not for Southeast Alaska, which remained without modern Internet and telephone service.
In 1997, WCI Cable Inc. announced it would change that by building a spur from its planned Whitter-Oregon cable. Like a T-intersection, the cable would have one branch reaching out from the Gulf of Alaska to Lena Point, near Juneau.
Access to WCI’s network, which included the at-sea cable and fiber on shore, was sold to telephone companies like Alaska Communications and GCI under the name Alaska Fiber Star.
WCI was backed by an Australian life insurance company that poured $230 million into the venture at the height of the dot-com boom.
Given that these figures were revealed during bankruptcy proceedings, it’s easy to infer how that investment went.
WCI’s cable was switched on in October 1999, months later than a competing cable completed by and owned by GCI. “By late 2000 and continuing through 2001 and into 2002, it became apparent that a vast oversupply of bandwidth had developed as too many companies had built too much capacity, a reflection of the poor estimation of demand and competition,” the bankruptcy report states.
WCI and its cable were put up for auction in 2001. GCI attempted to bid on the cable, but the sellers worried that GCI might be labeled a monopoly if it owned both major Alaska Internet cables.
GCI tried again, this time backing a third company to take over the cable. When GCI’s business relationship with the company was revealed, the deal fell through.
For several months, the cable was in legal limbo.
That impasse ended when the cable and the rest of WCI’s network was sold for $44.45 million to a company backed by Carlisle Group and Alaska Communications. In 2005, Alaska Communications announced it would purchase the cable itself. “This fiber optic transport will support the tremendous growth ACS has seen in Internet and long distance volumes,” said Liane Pelletier, Alaska Comunications’ president and chief executive officer at the time.
In the years that followed, Alaska Communications and GCI laid new fiber-optic cables to Southcentral Alaska, each with vastly more capacity than the first fiber lines to the state.
GCI also laid a second fiber line to Southeast Alaska, completing a ring of fiber-optic connectivity from Juneau south to Sitka, Wrangell, Ketchikan and back to its new Outside cable.
Alaska Communications, meanwhile, continued to own just one cable to Southeast.
COMPETITION AND COOPERATION
On July 25, one of Michael Todd’s calls wasn’t to another of his engineers — it was to Chris Brown, the head engineer for AT&T in Alaska. “(I) was actually talking to him at 7 o’clock that morning,” Todd said.
AT&T doesn’t operate any long-distance cables in Southeast; it leases space on both GCI and Alaska Communications’ cables, then uses a network of microwave towers that connect cellphone towers to the outside world. It competes with GCI and Alaska Communications in the cellphone market even as it uses those companies’ cables to provide cellphone service.
To provide security in case of an outage, Brown explained, AT&T leases space on as many cables as it can. If there’s an outage, it can route Internet and phone traffic around the break.
“Both they and we are protected,” he said. “In fact, AT&T is on every fiber cable that goes to the Lower 48.”
That redundancy meant that when Alaska Communications needed a connection, AT&T could provide it, using a cable leased from GCI.
“When it was determined that the cable was cut … it’s a very common industry practice for other companies to assist with emergency restoration,” Todd explained. “Engineers and technicians and businesspeople all got together and started making the right connections. Our first focus was restoring service to customers, and then we looked at the restoration of NorthStar.”
“We determined that we did have some capacity, but more importantly in a situation like this … we had almost all the pieces in place and ready to go,” Brown said.
“It was AT&T that was most willing to assist,” Todd added. “They were a very good partner in this exercise.”
Alaska Communications and AT&T had to ship some parts via express flight from Anchorage, but the connection was made and service restored in many places by dinnertime after the earthquake. “By the time we got all the right cards for them … I believe it was less than 24 hours,” Brown said.
“To have all the services back and in place in less than 24 hours was a great accomplishment by our folks,” Todd said. “There’s not much you can do when an earthquake takes out a cable; all you can do is respond well.”
DICING AND SPLICING
Though service was restored with the help of AT&T, Alaska Communications’ cable remained broken at the bottom of Cross Sound.
Most undersea cable operators don’t own the specialized ships and equipment needed to lay and repair underwater cable — it’s too expensive. Both GCI and Alaska Communications instead contract with Global Marine Systems, an international firm based in the United Kingdom that has ships stationed around the world.
“We pay north of $5 million a year just to keep ships on standby, and that’s not when they actually deploy,” said David Morris, a spokesman for GCI.
When Alaska Communications called for help, Global Marine sent the Wave Venture, a ship stationed in Victoria, B.C. that serves the west coast of the Americas.
The Wave Venture arrived off Cape Spencer on July 31, six days after the quake. The 464-foot long ship deployed specially designed robots to search for the tear in the cable, but there was a problem — the cable wasn’t there.
Thousands, possibly millions of tons of glacial silt had been moved by the underwater landslide. That landslide hadn’t caused a tsunami or any effects on the surface, but it drastically affected the bottom of Cross Sound. Alaska Communications’ cable was nowhere to be found.
“The problem is with these seismic events, it doesn’t just break and stay there; the cable could get broke, and depending on how much benthic activity is taking place, it could move,” Morris said.
The Wave Venture lit its sonar, pinging the bottom in the vain hope of finding the broken cable.
It threw grappling hooks over the side, a 150-year-old technique used by the earliest cable-laying ships, and dragged them through the silt, hoping to snag the cable. No luck.
The Wave Venture’s search ended without success. The ship and its crew ultimately backtracked to a good section of cable, lifted it to the surface, spliced in a new cable, then connected it to a good end on the opposite side of the underwater landslide.
In total, the ship and its crew replaced 5.7 miles of fiber optic cable. A 2013 Alaska broadband study estimated that installing a mile of fiber optic cable — on land — would cost $180,000.
Using that math, the July 25 earthquake cost Alaska Communications more than $1 million in fiber-optic cable alone. That figure doesn’t count the wages, equipment and time of the Wave Venture, nor does it include the cost of funneling Alaska Communications Southeast customers through AT&T’s network.
Furthermore, after all the millions of dollars, Alaska Communications is still reliant on a single cable to Southeast Alaska.
Network designers don’t like spur lines. They like rings. If traffic can’t flow clockwise around the ring, it can always turn around and go counter-clockwise. In Southeast Alaska, GCI operates a ring of fiber-optic cable that connects to Juneau, south to Wrangell and Ketchikan, then to the Lower 48 and Southcentral Alaska.
GCI’s cables survived July’s earthquake intact, but even its infrastructure isn’t disaster-proof. In January 2013, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake hit Southeast Alaska near Craig. Alaska Communications’ cable rode through that quake without problems, but GCI’s network was severed in two places: one north of Wrangell and one south of Wrangell.
Traffic in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan flowed around the breaks, but Wrangell was cut off entirely. As happened this summer, the Wave Venture traveled north and spliced in new sections of cable to restore service.
Several proposals have been floated to create a second ring of fiber-optic cable for Southeast Alaska, but none have been seriously pursued.
In 2008, Alaska Communications completed AKORN, a new fiber-optic cable from Oregon to Homer. It was designed to branch to Southeast, but that branch has not yet been built. Northstar still has capacity, Todd said, which means it doesn’t make sense for Alaska Communications to add another branch.
Laying additional cable through Cross Sound may raise the ire of the National Park Service. The NorthStar cable runs through the southern portion of Glacier Bay National Park, and park administrators were unaware of that fact until the Wave Venture arrived and the Capital City Weekly called for comment.
“It’s kind of a wakeup call for the park,” said Tom VandenBerg, chief of interpretation for the park.
The best hope for another fiber link to Southeast Alaska may lie with the Yukon government, which is considering construction of a second fiber-optic cable to the province and completed a feasibility study in February.
That study analyzed whether a cable from Carcross to Skagway and on to Juneau might relieve the Yukon’s Internet congestion. Such a link would cost $23 million to $28 million Canadian dollars and require a partner on the U.S. side of the border.
Thus far, neither GCI nor Alaska Communications have expressed interest in such a link.
Even if a Yukon link is built, Southeast Alaska’s Internet may still be vulnerable to earthquakes. Far to the south, off the coast of Oregon, all of Alaska’s cables run across the Cascadia Fault, which is overdue for a major eruption.
“A major earthquake in the PNW may disrupt communications between the Lower 48 and Alaska, especially during the immediate aftermath of the event,” wrote the Alaska Seismic Hazard Safety Commission in 2012.