On a cloudy Friday morning, in a tent on a windblown beach near the ferry terminal here, Rick Chislett delicately fed a glass fiber the thickness of a human hair into a piece of electronic equipment.
“The first one’s OK,” he said after a minute. “We can see Juneau.”
For northern Lynn Canal, those little words mean a great deal.
After spending nearly $11 million and years in development, Alaska Power and Telephone has completed a fiber-optic cable from Haines and Skagway to Juneau.
The cable is the first fiber-optic link between Juneau and the northern end of Lynn Canal and the first significant undersea fiber link constructed by AP&T. When it begins operating in mid-October, it will bring faster, more reliable internet service to Haines and Skagway — and possibly to Juneau and the Yukon.
“We’re on a country road here,” said Tom Ervin, AP&T’s project manager, of existing internet service in Haines. “This is a six-lane superhighway.”
That’s more than a little understatement.
Right now, Haines and Skagway are connected by a microwave communications link to Juneau, where large undersea cables link the capital city to the outside world.
That microwave link is about 70 percent saturated, and the percentage is rising rapidly as residents watch more movies on Netflix, play more video games and stream more music on almost a daily basis. It’s a global trend, not just one in Alaska.
“Our microwave network will be maxed out next year,” Ervin said.
The limits of AP&T’s network are apparent when cruise ships visit.
“What happens, when we get a cruise ship here, the whole town is down,” said Mary Crann, a Haines resident who stopped while walking her dog to watch the work. “You can’t get a phone call. It’s worse, too, when you try to call — you can’t make calls out of here.”
Don Phillips has lived in Haines for 53 years and remembers when residents had to only dial four numbers to make a local phone call. He now works for AP&T and is looking forward to retiring in a year and a half.
“Hopefully it’ll alleviate some backing up, like when the tour ships come in. You can’t hardly make a cellphone call,” he said. “This is a big deal. … It never ceases to amaze me: Something so fine can do so much, so I think this is really going to help out the town.”
Rainbows and highways
AP&T, Alaska’s third-largest telecom company, serves about 40 communities statewide, and upper Lynn Canal is its heartland.
“This is really where the demand is: Upper Lynn Canal,” Ervin said.
On Friday, contractors from International Telecom, a firm based in Atlantic Canada, pulled AP&T’s new connection ashore. A ship — the Silver Arrow — rested just offshore, trailing a line of buoys demarking the cable, which was maneuvered by divers and a guide rope into a conduit that led to shore.
An AP&T pickup truck slowly pulled the guide rope through the conduit and a manhole vault. Following was the cable itself.
Laying alongside Haines’ Lutak Highway, it was unassuming, a one-inch diameter snake with barber-poled yellow and black stripes obscured by gray muck.
It was heavy and tough, like one of the cables holding the Golden Gate Bridge, and International Telecom’s Kevin DeMont revealed its construction as he cut into it with a grinder.
The classic image of a cable is a thin layer of insulation packed with wires.
In a spray of sparks, DeMont revealed the lie. He tore away one layer of wound steel wire, then another.
“See, Mother Nature is just so powerful that you have to armor it,” explained Rob Copp of International Telecom. “It’s wrapped in steel, all the way around. It’s like single strands going around it and around it and around it, so that even if somebody grabs hold of it by mistake and starts to pull it, it’ll protect it.”
Below the layers of wire was a plastic seal, another layer of steel wire, a copper tube, then three colored strands slightly thicker than high-test fishing line.
Delicately, DeMont and Chislett (also of International Telecom) used wire strippers to cut the strands apart, revealing individual fibers color-coded for identification.
One at a time, even more carefully, they removed microscopic color-coding and cladding to reveal the hair-width glass fibers within.
These fibers, only one-quarter of a millimeter wide, are why AP&T has spent millions. They’re the bones of the internet here, in Juneau and around the world. No other mainstream technology can carry information as effectively and in such large volume.
When Chislett said he could see Juneau, his equipment could literally “see” flashes of laser light sent 71 miles to the capital city and returned to him.
A traditional copper telephone line can send one channel of information — one telephone call per line. A fiber-optic cable uses wavelengths of light to send its information, and many wavelengths can be transmitted simultaneously.
Imagine a sunbeam as one channel of information. That sunbeam can be broken into a rainbow — many channels of information. Each color is a different wavelength, but all are within that same sunbeam, transmitted at the same time.
AP&T has the capability to use 40 wavelengths in a single fiber — and there are 36 fibers in AP&T’s new cable.
If AP&T’s existing service to Haines and Skagway is a two-lane road, a single wavelength is a 20-lane road. A single fiber is an 800-lane road. The cable as a whole is a road with 28,800 lanes.
Planning and paying
Michael Garrett is AP&T’s current chief operations officer and spearheaded the development of the Lynn Canal Fiber system. At the end of this year, Garrett will replace Robert Grimm as the company’s CEO. Grimm is retiring after 44 years in the role.
Standing in Juneau’s airport before a flight to Haines to inspect the cable, Garrett explained that for AP&T’s customers, the cable means upgrades in speed.
Right now, Haines and Skagway customers are limited to 8-megabit home connections. When the cable is turned on, AP&T will be able to offer up to 30-megabit connections, speeds equivalent to what ACS offers in Juneau.
For the company, the new bottleneck will be in Juneau, where ACS and GCI own the southbound cables and AP&T must buy access — at a high price, Garrett said.
The cable has so much capacity that AP&T plans to initially use only four of the 36 fibers within. The others will remain dark until the company’s next plan comes to fruition.
Currently, Whitehorse and much of the Yukon Territory accesses the internet through a single, often-severed overland cable. Backhoes and forest fires have severed the connection at various times this summer.
“We’re ready, you know. We’ve got a pretty good idea to get to the border, but it’s them guys that need to figure out the funding and politics to get beyond the NorthwesTel monopoly,” Ervin said.
A link over the border from Skagway to Whitehorse would give the Yukon a second route for Internet traffic, making service more reliable and faster.
“The potential to empower the lives and livelihoods of residents in this region is tremendous,” Garrett said in the company’s latest annual report.
Juneau and the rest of Southeast Alaska could also benefit. This region relies on undersea cables to Southcentral Alaska and the Lower 48 for its ordinary telephone and internet service. In 2014, an undersea landslide, triggered by an earthquake, severed an ACS cable and caused outages. Had the Lynn Canal cable connected Juneau to Whitehorse, internet traffic could have been routed overland — there would have been no outages.
While AP&T provides some home and business internet services, it ordinarily operates as a “middle mile” company, one that prefers to sell internet services to other companies, which in turn sell to ordinary consumers.
To fully resolve the cruise-ship-caused cellphone problems, companies like AT&T or Verizon would have to buy more bandwidth from AP&T’s cable.
AP&T is making a big bet that those companies are willing to do that. The cost of the cable is equivalent to almost one-quarter of its entire gross revenue in 2015. Last year, it obtained a $9.9 million financing option for the project, but the company’s annual report noted that AP&T had shouldered most of the project’s burden to that point.
Ironically, buying the fiber is one of the cheapest parts of the project. The associated electronics and the cost of laying cable represent the lion’s share of the cost.
Forty people were mobilized on Friday to handle the landing, 31 aboard the Silver Arrow, which is being leased at $100,000 per day.
At Lena Point on Wednesday afternoon, cable started splashing into the water over the ship’s stern. By Thursday night, it had reached Haines. Work at Skagway was expected Saturday.
“This is the easy part for us,” Copp said. “Getting here is the hard part: all the paperwork, all the permits. Us laying? Simple. Simple.”
It appeared so on Friday. AP&T had scheduled an entire day to get the cable ashore, but the work was finished by 11:30 a.m.
Hard work remains — the cable must be spliced into connections on land, and new electronics must be installed (they’re being tested in Wasilla already), but the end of the beginning appears to be here.
“It’s always nice when things go like they’re supposed to,” Phillips said.