Alaska has the slowest average internet connections in the US. That's in part because it can be hard to connect some of the state’s remote communities to modern internet infrastructure. But it’s also because the state's only connections to the global internet run through four submarine cables , along with slower satellite and wireless connections. There’s no terrestrial fiber-optic connection from Alaska to Canada or the contiguous US.
But that's changing. On Wednesday, MTA, a cooperatively owned telco with about 30,000 customers, announced the construction of a new 100-terabit-per-second fiber-optic line between North Pole, near Fairbanks, and Alcan Border, where it will connect with Canadian carriers, and ultimately the Lower 48. MTA CEO Michael Burke says construction has already begun and is expected to be complete next year.
Burke says the cable will be buried along roughly 270 miles of the Alaska highway, which will make the project relatively simple because the highway is maintained year-round. "We'll have easy access to operate and maintain that cable," he says.
Burke says the possibility of a terrestrial link for Alaskan internet has been discussed for years. But it's only recently that the project has become economically feasible for MTA, because the company is spending more money each year to buy internet capacity from elsewhere. “That broadband internet growth that won't slow down anytime soon," he says. "So we need to secure more capacity to grow markets in Alaska." By building its own fiber-optic connection, the company will ensure that it has enough bandwidth to meet its customers’ needs, and potentially spend less buying capacity from submarine cable-based providers. Burke declined to discuss the cost of building the fiber-optic line, citing nondisclosure agreements.
Burke hopes the new cable will entice technology companies to build data centers in Alaska. Google and Facebook have built data centers in countries like Finland and Sweden in an effort to reduce the costs—and carbon—required to cool their legions of servers. Burke thinks Alaska could be similarly attractive, but says the state's relative lack of bandwidth has been an issue.
Burke also expects the new connection to make the state's internet connections more resilient because the submarine cables could be disrupted by underwater earthquakes.
The new connection won't solve all of the Alaska's connectivity woes. The state's average connection speed is only 17.3 Mbps, according to a report from HighSpeedInternet.com, the slowest in the nation and well behind the Federal Communications Commission ’s 25 Mbps minimum definition of broadband. The state finished last in a ranking of states by percentage of school districts with internet connections that meet the FCC's definition of broadband.
That poor showing stems in part from a lack of high-speed connections from broadband providers to homes and businesses—the so-called "last mile connections" that MTA’s fiber-optic backbone can't help with. And many communities in Alaska remain hard to reach. Burke says that some of Alaska's more remote communities will likely be helped by new satellite technologies. Others are being served by other new connections, such as a new in-state fiber optic-cable connection built by Quintillion , which serves rural communities like Nome, Alaska, from existing undersea cables.
But Burke says MTA's new cable might be able to help improve some underserved communities along the Alaska highway that simply lack affordable "middle mile" connections.
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