Large-scale internet outage due to cut fiberoptic cable interrupts business as usual
On Sunday, Nomeites noticed that their internet wasn’t working and that cell service was spottier than usual. By midmorning, it was clear that something bigger than just a temporary outage had happened. But no word from cell or internet providers offered a clue what had occurred. The first hint of what was going on came via a Facebook post – GCI and Starlink customers were still connected — when OTZ Telecommunications posted that Quintillion had a major cut in the cable.
The cut occurred on the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean and is believed to have been caused by a “pretty serious ice-scouring event,” Quintillion President Mac McHale told the Nugget on Monday afternoon.
An initial diagnosis of the problem showed that the signal seemed to have been interrupted 35 miles north of Oliktok Point, where the cable is lying 90 feet below the ice-covered ocean surface, McHale said. The company does not yet understand the extent of the damage and what the repair will entail—and it could be weeks before they can even access the area.
“We have a repair ship underway that’s mobilized already as we speak,” McHale said. The ship is coming from Dutch Harbor. “The issue we’re going to have is access to the area. It is an ice-covered area. Coming around Point Barrow and into the area of operations is going to be a little bit difficult. It requires detailed planning. We’re looking at this as a long-term fix. It’s going to be six- to eight-weeks for a full repair…We have all hands on deck at this point.”
Quintillion sells service to telecommunication companies including GCI, Fastwyre (formerly TelAlaska), Alaska Communications and ASTAC. McHale added that they were looking into backup solutions for customers in the meantime “to try to mitigate some of the inconvenience.”
But 24 hours into the outage, he was not yet ready to share details about any of those potential options.
This is the first outage that Quintillion has experienced in its undersea cable network since it went online, McHale said. Besides Nome, other cities affected by the cut are Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright and Utqiagvik.
AT&T cell phones were not working.
As Nome residents, businesses and other entities tried frantically to quickly adapt to the situation, the GCI store on Front Street was packed with people standing in line to switch over to GCI services. Although GCI partners also with Quintillion, an email to customers who were lucky enough to still have connectivity, said that “shortly after the break was reported, GCI began to migrate some impacted services to GCI’s satellite network and the TERRA networks.” The email warned that customers may experience slower internet and wireless services but that GCI technicians are monitoring the flow of data to accommodate the higher volume of data and activity on the satellite and TERRA networks.
Most stores dependent on the internet for credit card sales can only handle cash for now. As of Monday, Hansons only accepts cash, whereas AC takes cards. Bonanza Fuel can only handle cash sales at the fuel pump as well. The ATMs at the banks are working and people flocked to Wells Fargo to withdraw cash to pay for goods.
City Manager Glenn Steckman said city hall is open, the landline phones are working, but the city employees’ cell phones (based on AT&T services), sending and receiving of external emails and internet are not working.
Steckman said that the 911 system is functioning, as are the landlines, but accessing data via internet is at this time not possible. Any cloud-based transactions including the online sales tax collection are problematic. “We will make a decision today whether we go to filing back with paper again and we’re looking at work-arounds to see how we can function,” said Steckman. “Employees with GCI internet go home and work from their houses, but internet service with GCI is very slow at this time.”
Steckman, and many others in town, are now looking into the option of using the satellite-based Starlink. “But every one of these changes cost money and we’re just trying to make things work,” Steckman said.
Steckman said, the city was only informed on Monday morning of the problem and the potential six to eight-months time line of getting the cable fixed.
A visitor from Little Diomede earned about Nome’s plight and wryly remarked: Now you know what Little Diomede goes through. Internet, phone and cell service at the island this winter has been more off than on.