Bringing the world to rural Alaska

Many rural Alaskan towns remain without reliable communications infrastructure, particularly when it comes to the Internet. Rorik Peterson, a mechanical  engineer  from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, hopes to change that by stringing fiber optics cable across the Alaskan tundra.

Peterson, whose research includes modeling the seasonal freezing and thawing of soils, began a NSF-funded study during the 2011 spring that focuses on the durability of fiber optics cable in the harsh arctic climate. In April he and colleagues traveled to Toolik Station to set up their two-year experiment.

“It was a bit of a headache setting up our study at Toolik because of the many science groups that use the facility and study the ecosystems around the facility. But we worked together to find a time when we would not impact other science projects.  Seven station staff and I spent an entire day spooling out cable across several environments to see how the cable will fare over a couple of years. Not only is weather a consideration, animals are as well,” explains Peterson.

Fiber optics cables are currently operational between Anchorage and Fairbanks and along the Dalton Highway (the “Haul Road”) between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, but burying cables is impractical given the remote setting of many Alaskan villages.

“We set our cable on top of the snow and tundra using a Polaris Ranger retrofitted with tracks. We had a 5km spool of cable trailered on the station pad that unspooled as we drove. We wanted to make a loop for easier testing, but it was challenging to do given that the cable, although somewhat flexible, is still pretty rigid and we didn’t want any kinks. We used a 1km section and made certain to drape cable across bedrock, a wet and swampy stream environment, and a bushy section of tundra.  In snowy sections, the cable will sink into the snow a bit as the days warm and the black cable melts into the snow and soil,” Peterson says. “The next step is a lot of sit and wait.”

Peterson will revisit the site periodically to see whether animals disturb the cable. A real-time camera will take snapshots of the weather that Peterson will use in his assessment of how cold temperatures (often more than -40C) might affect the cable’s physical properties as well as data transmission.

“If the cables stand the test of time, a lot of Alaska’s interior may someday see significant improvement in their Internet communication. Communications companies will be able to easily characterize line performance and send teams out via helicopter for repairs when needed,” explains Peterson. “Now, even places like Barrow rely on satellites for communications. Most scientists that have worked out of there will tell you that it’s easier to make a DVD of their data and send it to colleagues via air rather than to try to upload or download data in real time. Fiber optics technology would change that.”—Marcy Davis