ACS ready to lay cable

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2008

Alaska Communications Systems has begun cable-laying operations that by early next year will connect Alaska and the Lower 48 with a new cable capable of data transfer rates far in excess of current cable links.

Photo  Courtesy Acs
Photo Courtesy Acs
A view of the aft end of the Tyco Resolute is shown. The plow on the right is used to dig a trench on the sea floor for laying cable.

The new ACS cable will link Anchorage to the Florence, Ore., providing an eight-fold boost to the bandwidth, according to the company. The project, dubbed AKORN, short for Alaska Oregon Network, is meant to meet the rapidly growing demand for bandwidth by large-capacity users including government, oil and gas and other corporations, banks, the military and more.

"The bandwidth requirements for large enterprises and government is constantly expanding," said Stephen Gebert, director of ACS' Program Management Office. "They are looking for more bandwidth all the time, and not only bandwidth, but also the resiliency, the redundancy, the robustness that can guarantee uninterrupted service. They need that reliability."

Last week, a small landing craft aided by some local boats laid out approximately 2.5 miles of cable from Bishops Beach into Kachemak Bay. The cable is to be tied into a new power station being built by ACS along the Homer Bypass.

Responsible for laying the roughly 3,000 miles of cable between Kachemak Bay and Oregon is the crew of the Tyco Resolute, which arrived in Homer last week and sits anchored at Homer's Deep Water Dock, where Tuesday, a length of cable was being transferred to a barge that will head up Cook Inlet to install an undersea section between Nikiski and Anchorage. Homer and Nikiski will be linked overland.

Later this summer, the Resolute's crew will pick up the end of the cable in Kachemak Bay, splice it to the cable stored on board -- a delicate and time-consuming operation done in a "clean room" inside the ship -- and then begin the long trek south across the Gulf of Alaska, playing out the rest of the cable link and burying it beneath the ocean floor.

Once the operation connecting Anchorage and Oregon is complete, the cable will handle data transfer and telephone communications, connecting ACS customers to global broadband networks.

ACS said AKORN is part of a $175 million investment to advance Alaska's connectivity. In April, the company announced its intent to purchase Crest Communications Corp., owner and operator of the Northstar submarine fiber optic cable, one of three linking Alaska to the Lower 48. Once completed, the purchase will give ACS control of two of the four cables currently connecting Alaska to Outside.

The cable has a 25-year expected lifespan, Gebert said. It is designed to move 2.6 terabits of data per second -- information equivalent to downloading 320 sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica each second. Put another way, that's 35 feature-length movies or 457 CDs a second.

In more practical terms, the cable will be able to handle the equivalent of 33 million simultaneous phone calls at full capacity, he said

The completed cable is expected to become operational early next year. A splitter in the new cable will allow a future connection to Southeast Alaska and Juneau.

The cable-laying company, Tyco Telecommunications, claims 50 years of experience in cable installation and the youngest fleet in the industry.

The Tyco Resolute was built in Singapore and completed in 2002. It is one of six Reliance Class vessels owned by Tyco engaged in various cable operations around the globe. Its officers are from Spain, but most of the crew is from Peru. The ship is flagged in the Marshall Islands.

Operations are managed from a spacious high-tech bridge with a clear 360-degree view of the surroundings. Panels of computer screens provide real-time information on various parameters necessary for positioning, laying and burying communications cable on the ocean floor thousands of meters below.

Bow and stern thrusters and other positioning equipment allow pinpoint accuracy, even in heavy seas. Below deck, three circular cable tanks can hold in excess of 5,400 tons of cable, enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Cable-handling machinery plays out the cable over the stern. At the stern is a 65-ton A-frame structure used to guide sea plows that can rip open a linear cavity in the ocean floor as deep as three meters into which the cable is laid and then buried.

The Homer end of the cable already lying on the sea floor is in water too shallow for the Resolute. So, once its end is spliced to the trans-Gulf cable, divers using a jet tool to bury the short Homer end, Gebert explained,

Near the Resolute's bow is a robotic ROV (remotely operated vehicle) that can be lowered to the ocean floor to inspect cable and conduct repair tasks as deep as 2,500 meters, though normally it is operated no deeper than 2,000 meters.

The trans-Gulf cable laying operation is to begin soon and take about two months to complete.

Gebert said the new cable was part of ACS' effort to break into the "long-haul" communications market.

"This really adds to that capability," he said.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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