The Internet in the Arctic: Crucial Connections

[Photo via Pixabay]
by Marc Lanteigne

The Arctic, like much of the rest of the world, has been trying to address the crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two months. Also, in the Arctic as with the rest of the globe, the internet has become an essential tool for education, information, and diversion as more and more people enter into lockdown in the far north.

Connecting the Arctic and its approximately four million inhabitants has been, to put it mildly, a logistical challenge, given the challenges of ‘north-south’ geographic isolation, difficult environmental and climate conditions, and huge expanses between population centres. In many areas of the Arctic, internet quality varies, and access suffers from low quality and high costs, as well as coverage gaps. Improved internet infrastructure, despite being considered a priority for many Arctic governments’ development policies, still lags behind that of many other parts of the world. This has been an issue for a wide variety of northern economic sectors, including communications and media, education, health services, social services and transportation, as well as emergency services and the protection and development of Indigenous languages and culture.

It was only late last year that the first truly high-speed internet reached the high Arctic, in the form of a satellite system serving the needs of the German research vessel RV Polarstern. The multi-state expedition teams housed on that ship, which is currently in the Central Arctic Ocean, north of Svalbard, have been able to make use of internet speeds of over 100 Mbps (megabits per second) to transmit data findings and communicate with the rest of the world.

‘Connectivity’ was a primary theme [pdf] during Finland’s period of chairing the Arctic Council in 2017-9, acknowledging the need for regional alternatives to landlines such as satellites, undersea cables and wireless. Helsinki sought to build on the recommendations outlined in the Council’s Task Force on Telecommunications Infrastructure in the Arctic (TFTIA), which was founded in 2015 at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Iqaluit.

[Photo by Whrelf Siemens via Picspree]
In the TFTIA’s 2017 report [pdf] on the state of telecommunications in the Arctic, it was noted that the region is unsuited for a single method of providing improved connectivity, and that quality varied considerably around the region. The report concluded more effort was needed on building infrastructure, taking into account the specific needs of Indigenous persons, while encouraging cooperation between governments, business and research institutions in networking the Arctic. Since assuming the Chair of the Arctic Council in 2019, Iceland also has been seeking to make telecommunications a priority for the region as part of its platform of addressing the specific needs of far northern people and communities.

Yet, these ambitious communications infrastructure plans have at times run into both economic and logistical roadblocks. For example, in December last year the Canadian government published a strategy paper regarding the country’s connectivity, and among the recommendations were addressing the gaps in access both between urban and rural regions but also between the Canadian North and the rest of the country.

The paper explained the vulnerabilities of Northern communities to breakdowns due to the limited number of routing options, as well as the problems of improving connection speeds, stating that, ‘They are clearly too slow when an x-ray cannot be uploaded in a Northern community unless other Internet users are temporarily kicked off the Internet.’ Northern communities have been cautiously welcoming of Ottawa’s plans to develop universal broadband systems, but local specialists have stressed that small providers should be allowed to assist in that process, arguing that large national-level firms in the country have not so far delivered on their own promises of improving northern internet services.

The fragility of Northern Canadian internet networks was again illustrated last month when a cable was accidentally cut in northern British Columbia, resulting in loss of internet, long distance phone and television services in parts of the Northwest Territories and Yukon for a period of several hours. A similar incident took place in 2016 when a fibre-optic cable was inadvertently damaged during construction work, also in Northern BC, resulting in the breakdown of internet services in parts of Canada’s northern territories. As well, two separate internet cuts in the Yellowknife region during the summer of 2019 were estimated to have cost C$10 million (US$7 million) in lost revenue.

The arrival of the coronavirus in the Canadian North, and calls for citizens to self-isolate as a result, will likely place further strains on the network, resulting in requests in Nunavut for citizens to avoid overuse of the internet and with telecom companies operating in the Canadian Arctic urging the easing of usage caps and limits to data speeds. Other areas of the Arctic are also relying more directly on internet services as a result of the coronavirus, including due to the closing of schools and the moving of classes online.

Plans to create new options for internet connectivity in the Arctic have also met obstacles of various types. In late 2019, the British firm OneWeb announced it was developing an enhanced satellite-based system, which would vastly improve internet quality in much of the Arctic. However, last month the economic fallout from the coronavirus forced OneWeb to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, placing the Arctic satellite constellation plans in doubt. As well, last year an Alaskan firm, Quintillion Subsea, was jolted by a massive wire-fraud scandal, affecting that firm’s plans to lay down internet cable in the Arctic Ocean.

Another regional cable project, Arctic Connect, backed by the government of Finland and involving the deployment of new cables to connect East Asia with northern Europe via Siberia, potentially as part of China’s developing ‘Polar Silk Road’ initiatives, has also run into both economic and political headwinds over the past year. Meanwhile, Moscow confirmed in March of 2019 that it was seeking to develop its own closed cable system, named the ‘Multi-service Transport Network System’ (Мультисервисная транспортная сеть связи), along the Siberian coast for strictly military purposes, according to the Russian news service Izvestia [in Russian].

[Photo via Pixabay]
Finally, plans for an internet underwater link connecting Nunavut and Greenland, specifically developed to assist the north-eastern Nunavut region of Qikiqtaaluk, encountered an obstacle when the estimated cost of the project increased considerably in October 2019 to C$209 million (US$147 million), raising questions about the project’s cost/benefit ratio. However, as much of the Canadian Arctic is dependent upon satellite networks to gain access to the internet, undersea cables are still viewed as a potentially cheaper and more efficient alternative.

As for China, the Arctic has become a major area of interest for that country’s flagship ICT (information and communications technology) firm, Huawei (华为) as the company seeks to promote its fifth-generation (5G) communications infrastructure to other states. However, Huawei’s results in the Arctic markets have been mixed at best. The US government has been pressuring other governments to shun 5G investment offers from Huawei, and in the Arctic, some states have remained ‘on the fence’, such as Canada and Iceland. Others, such as Norway, have opted to select alternatives, with the Norwegian firm Telenor announcing in December last year that it would choose a rival firm, Sweden’s Ericsson, for its 5G development plans, in the wake of security concerns expressed by the country’s intelligence services.

Relations between Huawei and the government of Denmark have also been rocky. Elsewhere in the Danish Kingdom, Greenland decided in December 2019 to also select Ericsson for its 5G development, (the island nation was formally upgraded to 4G connectivity in late 2018). [Addendum: In making the announcement that Ericsson would be chosen for 5G upgrading, Greenlandic communications firm Tele-Post explained [in Danish] its decision by noting the logistical problems of switching from Ericsson, which has been the provider of Greenland’s 4G network since 2017, to another company.]

As well, in the Faroe Islands, reports surfaced during the same month that Chinese officials had attempted to link the prospect of enhanced Chinese trade with the Faroese government accepting a Huawei bid, resulting in a backlash from the United States.

Microsoft office in Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Unsurprisingly, given the growing closeness of Sino-Russian relations, Moscow has welcomed Huawei investment to develop high-speed wireless network infrastructure, as well as viewing the Chinese company as a promising partner for research in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. However, despite ongoing brittle relations between Canada and China, Huawei announced in July 2019 that it was partnering with two Canadian firms to provide high-speed internet to the Arctic territories and northern Québec, sparking much debate, considering Ottawa had yet to decide whether to permit Huawei to invest in Canadian 5G infrastructure.

In addition to the prospect of new and enhanced internet connections in the Arctic, the region has been viewed as a potential data storage site, given its cold climes which reduce the need for cooling systems. Sites in the Nordic region have been especially popular for data storage infrastructure. For example, Iceland has become known as an ideal site for various data storage facilities, as well as cryptocurrency production farms, and in 2013, Facebook opened a data centre of its own in Luleå in northern Sweden. In May last year, Google announced it would be investing €600 million (US$670 million) in the expansion of its data facilities at Hamina, Finland. More recently, parts of Siberia have become known for data storage potential, including for the purposes of Bitcoin mining.

Global demand for data storage is expected to accelerate even further in the coming years after several milestones were reached in the past decade. In 2016, the world officially entered the so-called ‘Zettabyte Era’, meaning that the total amount of internet traffic had exceeded one zettabyte, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 [1021] bytes, while in 2012, it was estimated that the total amount of digital data produced had reached one zettabyte during that year. More recently, there have already been initial signs that the current pandemic is further driving global demand for data storage and cloud computing services as more people are self-quarantining. As the need persists for energy efficient and green solutions to housing data, the benefits of building in the Arctic are likely to factor into such future planning.

[Photo via Pixabay]
This month, it was reported that the software development firm GitHub, owned by the US computer firm Microsoft, was preparing to use an abandoned mine on Spitsbergen Island in Svalbard to store data, specifically open-source code, on film reels as a backup system which, in theory, could protect the information for centuries. Svalbard already houses the Arctic World Archive (AWA), a data storage project jointly overseen by the Norwegian firms Piql and Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, which was established in 2017. The AWA site is being used for various types of data storage by several organisations, including the European Space Agency, UNICEF, and the Vatican Library.

The opening up of the Arctic to greater economic activity may slow as a result of the pandemic. However, the attractiveness of the region to numerous sectors, including extractive industries and shipping, as well as growing international scientific interest in the Polar Regions, will mean that future development of the region will rely more directly on the virtual world. The question now is whether the current (and future) building blocks of the internet are prepared to meet that demand in the Arctic.

[The author would like to thank Mikkel Møller Schøler and Mingming Shi for their valuable assistance in the writing of this article.]