Company completes filing on proposal to run broadband line through Arctic

TORONTO – A Toronto company filed its final regulatory documents Tuesday and expects speedy approval for a proposal to run a fibre-optic line through the Northwest Passage.

“We’re pretty well assured that that is going to happen fairly quickly,” said Doug Cunningham, president of Arctic Fibre.

“Not that it’s rubber-stamped, but we’re very confident that we will be getting a licence forthwith.”

Arctic Fibre has asked the Nunavut Impact Review Board and Industry Canada for submarine cable landing licences that would serve seven communities in Nunavut and just over half the territory’s population.

The plans are part of a $600-million proposal to stretch a 15,700- kilometre-long cable from Japan to Newfoundland, where it would connect to the northeastern United States.

Running fibre-optic lines through the Northwest Passage instead of to the U.S. coast, across the country, then back under water again would shave 29 milliseconds off data transmission time between Tokyo and London, the company says. That’s a significant edge for high-speed financial traders.

As well, the line would add stability to global information flows by adding another physical route. Cunningham said current lines run through regions with either geological or political instability.

Arctic Fibre’s plan would also bring “virtually unlimited” bandwidth to Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak, Igloolik, Hall Beach, Cape Dorset and Iqaluit. Those communities include just over half of Nunavut’s population.

The cable could also connect with Kugluktuk, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

Cunningham said Arctic Fibre also has a $240-million proposal before the federal government for spur lines off the main trunk that would connect to communities along the east and west sides of Hudson Bay as well as up Baffin Island’s west coast. That would include about 98 per cent of Nunavummiut, as well as several locations in Arctic Quebec.

“We haven’t had any formal response to the proposal,” Cunningham said.

If all goes well, the line could be operational by 2016, he added.

Internet service to the Arctic is a subject of growing concern.

A recent Conference Board of Canada report called the current situation an impediment to growth.

“The most modern standard of service continues to elude most northern communities,” said the report. “This limits the ability of regional economies to diversify.”

A 2011 government report noted the same problem.

“The Arctic must have reliable communication networks to establish and maintain Canada’s sovereignty, and to meet international obligations for ensuring safe passage for road, sea and air traffic,” said the Arctic Communications Infrastructure Assessment Report.

Cunningham said lack of bandwidth also contributes to the cost of development and government in the North. He said his company had to courier its applications to the review board because Internet service to Cambridge Bay couldn’t handle the entire document.

Arctic Fibre isn’t the only company competing to improve the situation.

Satellite services company Telesat has promised to spend $40 million to expand and modernize its broadband equipment and infrastructure serving Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.

The Ottawa-based company has said it would cost about $160 million over the next decade to provide additional communications infrastructure and said it is prepared to spend about a quarter of that as its share.

Cunningham said Arctic Fibre’s next move is to complete the detailed undersea mapping required to lay the line. He said that work is planned for next summer.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton