Residents affected by fiber outage in rural Alaska turn to satellite internet, analog operations

Since a fiber outage last weekend left several communities in Northwest Alaska and the North Slope without Internet and cellular service, telecommunications service providers have been scrambling to get connectivity back up and some agencies, residents and companies are adapting to pursue their own solutions.

On Sunday, heavy ice movement 34 miles off Utqiagvik disrupted the undersea fiber network operated by broadband provider Quintilion. Repairing the fiber cut could take six to eight weeks, depending on when the ice breaks up and how extensive the repairs are, said Quintillion chairman Mac McHale.

After the breakup, Utqiagvik, Wainwright, Point Hope, Kotzebue, Nome and Atqasuk experienced outages, which varied widely among the telecom providers using the Quintillions fiber system, McHale said.

Many city government services were disrupted in Utqiagvik and Kotzebue. Several residents in the affected communities were unable to use their phones to communicate with friends and family, and some businesses had difficulty conducting financial transactions without an internet connection.

To meet the challenges, some were returning to analog operations such as businesses focusing on cash transactions or libraries hand-checking books. Others turned to satellite internet alternatives to get back online, and some residents were breaking away all together.

This disruption affects everyone, personally and professionally, said Utqiagvik resident Mary Samuelu.

Implications of interruptions

The outages continued to disrupt operations for some communities and businesses across the region on Thursday.

In Utqiagvik, all city services, as well as the recently reopened DMV office, were shut down this week, according to online statements from the city.

The City of Kotzebue also reported that there was no internet in all departments, including City Hall, the Police Department, Fire Department, Parks and Recreation, Public Works and Arctic Spirits.

We were lucky that our 911 services are still working, Kotzebue City Manager Tessa Baldwin said. But it’s really hard to run a government without the Internet.

The widespread outage prevented the city from connecting to the server that helps the city function, Baldwin said.

Even though we have internet all over the city, it’s not going to help if we don’t get into a server, Baldwin said, which is how we collect payments from the public, how we handle payroll, how we basically function, and that allows us also to connect. to the public by email.

Some shops in Utqiagvik, Kotzebue and Nome only accepted cash, residents said.

We usually don’t carry much cash, but now we have to keep some with us because some shops are cash-only until further notice, said Utqiagvik resident LeLe Poe.

Libraries throughout the affected area functioned without the Internet, according to a statement from the Alaska Library Association.

We just went analog, said Janet Steppe, a library assistant at the Kegoayah Kozga Public Library in Nome. We couldn’t provide any internet service, but could just check the books manually.

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Darius Samuelu works with the North Slope Borough Police Department and was in Point Hope on a business trip this weekend, said his wife, Mary Samuelu. When the cellular connection went down, she said Mary Samuelu, she was unable to reach him for over 36 hours.

Being an officer’s wife, it was scary. All the crazy scenarios start going through your head, said Mary Samuelu from Utqiagvik. From talking to your spouse every hour to not being able to talk to him has been difficult.

Eventually, Darius Samuelu used one of the clinic nurses’ phones to call her. He was a big relief, said Mary Samuelu.

Get back online

Improvements are coming this week for residents of Northwest Alaska.

In North Slope communities that experienced disruptions, Utqiagvik, Point Hope, Atqasuk and Wainwright Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperatives were working using the satellite network they had before switching to fiber, said Rebecca Sparks, ASTAC’s external affairs manager. The company planned to restore 911 backup services first and then focus on restoring cellular service online, Sparks said.

We are trying to restore services before the fiber cut is actually restored, he said.

OTZ Telecommunications, which serves Kotzebue, also planned to use satellite networks to partially restore Internet service in the coming days and continue the recovery process next week, OTZ Telecommunications CEO Kelly Williams said Thursday.

The North Slope Borough declared a disaster emergency on Thursday due to a communications outage and plans to roll out alternative satellite communications support to multiple communities within a week to support key government infrastructure and operations, according to a report from the. Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Some local residents and organizations, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks Chukchi Campus in Kotzebue and Iisavik College in Utqiagvik, were directly purchasing satellite services to stay online.

Microcom a local reseller of satellite products, including Starlink Internet it saw an immediate increase in demand from customers of Utqiagvik, Atqasuk, Nome and Wainwright, said the company’s director of communications, Alexander Schumann. The company also reported multiple recalls of local equipment in Anchorage by businesses, banks, tribal entities, nonprofits and companies associated with the Arctic and Northwest Alaska regions, he said.

Today is probably the busiest day we’ve had, Schumann said on Tuesday. We’ve probably shipped over 400 Starlink units to people all over Alaska today. By comparison, the company shipped a few dozen units on a typical day, she said.

Until internet and cell service are restored, many residents are adjusting to life without it.

At Point Hope, service disruptions occurred during the Qagruq, the three-day whaling festival, slightly complicating preparations for the festival, Shingo Takazawa said. Whaling crews installed an anorak on the north side of the ceremonial site to protect the celebration from the elements, but the wind shifted to the south.

They put a windbreaker on the wrong side, Takazawa said. But no one has phone service, no one knows the weather.

Takazawa said there was also an upside to losing serve. On the third day of the celebration, residents sat and ate by the anorak, sharing stories and jokes about using CB or VHF radios again.

No one checks their cell phone, no one talks on the phone, no one rings. So peaceful, Takazawa said. We seem to be going back to the old fashioned way. We are sharing old hunting stories, family history, experiences.

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