Continued Internet outages are hampering 911 services, other vital services in Northwest Alaska

The coast of Utqiagvik, in a residential area near the center. (Ravenna Koenig/Alaskas Energy Desk)

It’s been a week since ice severed a fiber-optic cable in the Arctic Ocean, cutting communications to at least half a dozen communities in northwest Alaska. Many are still without Internet or cell service, and the cable company says it will be two months before the line is repaired.

The breakup is disrupting normal life in many communities above the Arctic Circle, including vital emergency services.

The cable connected most of northwestern Alaska. Quintilion, the Alaska-based company that owns the line, says the rupture mainly affected Nome, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright and Utqiagvik, as well as the villages of Atqasuk and Nuiqsut.

On Wednesday, the North Slope District issued an emergency declaration saying the fiber failure would severely impact the ability to provide essential services such as search and rescue, police, fire and utilities.

Atqasuk is feeling the repercussions of the breakup. Doug Whiteman is the mayor of the community of about 300 people, which is located 60 miles southwest of Utqiagvik. He says emergency communications aren’t working as well as they should between communities.

We had a problem with 911 calls. The village police officer could call Barrow and they could hear, but their answers didn’t add up, he said. It’s a one-sided conversation.

Whiteman says the district is advising the community to stay away from the limited availability of the Internet. He says right now, public safety, the health clinic, and the fire department all share a satellite phone.

Further south, Wainwright, a community of nearly 700, is facing similar challenges.

Mayor Chester Ekak says Wainwright is also having problems with their 911 services. They also experienced one-way communication with emergency services in Utqiagvik, which forced them to find a solution.

We had to set up a temporary dispatch facility and use VHF for police, fire and ambulance calls, he said.

He says it’s not just emergency response that has stalled. It is also daily life.

It is affecting the daily operations of companies. The stores that turned into cash-only stores have all been affected by the cord break, she said.

Ekak says the ATMs require an internet connection, so now customers can’t withdraw money for cash-only businesses. And Ekak says he also affects people receiving assistance like EBT because they can’t use their cards.

Kotzebue’s companies are also suffering. Lewis Pagel is the owner and chief physician of Arctic Chiropractic. He says his office is without the Internet, which means he can’t process insurance billing and his patients can’t schedule appointments.

Also, my credit card machine won’t work either. So I can’t collect payments at the office. So from a financial standpoint, it’s pretty damaging, he said.

Pagel’s office is not alone. Kotzebue City Manager Tessa Baldwin says the fiber outage is disrupting government operations and the city is unable to connect to its server, Internet and phone.

The city is without internet, and yesterday morning I went there to pay my business taxes. But they can’t process anything, she said. We have been very fortunate that our emergency services are still operational.

This week, Baldwin says the city was in the throes of payroll. They were able to fix the problem and now over 100 people employed by the city will receive their checks a few days late.

It has been extremely difficult to run a city without internet or phone service, he said.

Baldwin says there were other issues, including meeting city grant deadlines and communicating with city partners outside of Kotzebue.

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