New submarine cable for Nunavut has competition

CanArctic Inuit Networks says it can bring high-speed internet to the territory at lower cost and without relying on Huawei equipment

By Jim Bell,
April 18, 2022

The path to a better telecommunications system in Nunavut may well lie under the ocean — through undersea bundles of fiber optic cables.

But what road will Nunavut find itself on?

The emergence of a $107 million fiber optic submarine cable proposal in late December called SednaLink, unveiled by a new private company called CanArctic Inuit Networks Inc., offers Nunavut another option to unlock the territory of slow and unreliable satellite networks and achieve parity with southern Canada.

It could also spell the possible death of the Government of Nunavut’s $209.5 million proposal to lay its own fiber optic cable between Iqaluit and Nuuk, Greenland.

At least that’s what CanArctic’s two partners, CEO Doug Cunningham of Toronto and COO Madeleine Redfern of Iqaluit, say.

Cheaper, more secure?

Cunningham and Redfern say their proposal requires no expenditure on the part of the Government of Nunavut.

The GN, according to its 2021-2022 capital estimates, has already spent $4 million on preparatory work for its Nuuk-Iqaluit cable project and plans to spend an additional $54.5 million. The federal government is expected to contribute the remaining $151 million.

The territorial government has not issued a request for proposals for the project, according to its 2020-2023 business plan.

“We can deliver these things at a lower capital cost than governments,” Cunningham told Nunatsiaq News in an interview.

CanArctic also says fiber optic cables are a safer bet than the various proposals for low Earth orbit satellite systems. They say satellites have a higher price tag and represent unproven technology.

Marine fiber optic cable is about the same width as a garden hose. But it is capable of transmitting large amounts of data at the speed of light.

Cunningham says he has worked for more than 35 years in the international marine cable industry. Another company he works with, Crosslake Fibre, has installed fiber optic cables on Lake Ontario and is involved in projects in North America and Europe.

He was also CEO of a former company, Arctic Fiber, which launched a fiber optic system for the Arctic in 2012. In 2016, an Alaskan company bought the assets of Arctic Fiber and built a submarine cable along the north coast of Alaska.

As part of the first phase of its program, CanArctic would install a 2,104 kilometer high-speed fiber optic cable between Iqaluit and Clarenville, Newfoundland.

From there, Internet traffic from Nunavut would be directly connected to North American networks.

Nunatsiavut Connections, Nunavik

Along the way, a Nunatsiavut company would install spur lines at six locations on the northern Labrador coast: Nain, Voisey’s Bay, Natuashish, Hopedale, Makkovik and Postville.

Later, branch lines would connect many Qikiqtani communities, as well as Salluit, Nunavik.

CanArctic tapped into a variety of federal government infrastructure and broadband programs to contribute approximately 75% of the required funding for the $107 million SednaLink project. He expects private sector investors to do the rest.

Cunningham said he estimated the annual cost of operating the SednaLink cable at around $9 million.

Once operational, the company will generate revenue by selling wholesale bandwidth to existing companies like Northwestel, SSi Canada, Iristel — and even the Government of Nunavut, Cunningham said.

The Huawei connection

SednaLink has another potential benefit.

Under the government’s plan, Internet traffic from Nunavut and Canada would pass through a marine cable containing equipment installed by Huawei Marine, a former subsidiary of Chinese state-owned Huawei Technologies. The marine cable, called Greenland Connect, was laid between Nuuk and Newfoundland in 2008. It is operated by TELE Greenland.

This Greenland Connect line was upgraded in 2017 – by Huawei Marine, which installed Huawei terminal equipment.

This means that the GN’s plan could raise potential national security concerns, given the large amounts of unencrypted data that would travel from Nunavut to the Greenland Connect line.

“I understand that there may be Huawei equipment attached to TELE Greenland and there are always, of course, concerns about Huawei equipment and security and privacy issues,” Redfern told Nunatsiaq News.

Many Western countries fear that equipment installed by Huawei Technologies, which has close ties to the Chinese government, could be used by the People’s Republic of China for various types of cyber espionage.

For this reason, some countries have taken measures to limit or prohibit the use of Huawei equipment in new next-generation 5G cellular networks.

Huawei Technologies sold Huawei Marine in 2019 to a China-based company called Hengtong Optic-Electric, which is part-owned by a member of China’s National People’s Congress.

But in 2019, The Washington Post reported that even under its new owner, Huawei Marine, is still seen as a potential threat.

Completion by 2022?

Meanwhile, CanArctic Networks hopes to have its Iqaluit-Newfoundland cable installed by November 2022, but that’s only if funding comes together quickly.

“If we don’t get the support within the next two months, this project will potentially be delayed for another year,” Redfern said.

It’s because of the short shipping season in the Arctic. Cable laying and preparatory work ashore can only be done during ice-free months.

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Melvin B. Baillie