At around midnight Wednesday, the Ketchikan Public Utilities new undersea fiber-optic cable landed at Mountain Point via barge.

The cable’s installation had begun 100 miles away at Dundas Island, northwest of Prince Rupert, then was laid along the sea floor on its way to Ketchikan. The operation was delayed a few days when it had to hunker in rough weather at Dixon Entrance, but all else ran smoothly, according to KPU Telecommunications Division Manager Ed Cushing.

City of Ketchikan voters in October approved the sale of up to $11.5 million in KPU revenue bonds for the project, and the Ketchikan City Council authorized the bond sale in April.

The contract for the project was awarded to Westpark Electric Ltd, which, according to information at westparkelectric.com, is located in Hope, British Columbia.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Cushing described the span and purpose of the operation.

The cable itself is 3.5 inches in diameter, Cushing explained, and it’s armoured with several layers of protective coating. Its inner core is packed with 48 hollow glass fibers that are thinner than a human hair and encased in protective material.

“The purpose of the fiber is to allow a laser on both ends to send data back and forth through the hollow fiber — through the hollow glass tube — and the laser is sending data at the speed of light,” Cushing said. “Incredible amounts of data.”

On Thursday morning, the contractor’s crew was splicing the end of the cable onto the onshore cable, housed in a concrete vault. They then planned to test the cable (fo) for continuity at the end of the onshore cable, and if everything tested well, their job would be complete and they would be on their way back to Canada by the early afternoon Thursday.

The cable itself was wound inside a huge orange tub atop the barge, then lifted up and out mechanically as it was threaded down into the water.

Before the cable was even loaded on the barge, Cushing said, “the cable was tested to make sure, before they accepted delivery, that all the continuity measurements were correct — that it was a good cable.”

En route to Ketchikan, the cable also was constantly tested, he added, “to make sure there was no change in the continuity readings at any point.”

The onshore testing, once the barge arrived in Ketchikan, Cushing described as “almost anticlimactic,” because the cable had been tested so many times.

He also shared a unique feature of the cable laying project.

“One of the interesting things about this project is the barge was accompanied by a tug that operated a remotely operated submersible vehicle that followed the cable placement the entire 100 miles on the ocean floor to verify that the cable was laying correctly, that it wasn’t crossing any boulders or any underwater valleys,” Cushing said. “For the most part, the ocean floor is silty, so in the video, they could watch the cable bury itself.”

“We have film of that entire 100-mile undersea cable placement” all on high-quality video, he added.

The next stage of the project is to finish installing the “very sophisticated and expensive” electronics in Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, then connect the cable to those, then test and validate the operation of the electronics, Cushing said.

The entire project is expected to be up for full-time service at the end of October.

“It’s a historic project,” Cushing said, adding that it’s the first time any community in Alaska has been connected to Canada’s main lines by a submarine cable.

Cushing explained the advantages of installing the new fiber optic cable.

“In the past, KPU was always limited in terms of how much off-island capacity it could obtain or that it could afford to obtain,” he said. “Basically, our business model going forward was at the point where it wasn’t sustainable because of the cost of off-island broadband connectivity. It’d become too expensive at the same time demand for broadband internet service was exploding. Everybody wants and needs more and more data.”

He added, “perhaps the coolest aspect of this project is this new cable. The capacity of the cable is essentially unlimited because it’s only limited by the amount of electronics that we hang on both ends, or install on both ends.”

“It’s very cool that here in Ketchikan we have a telecommunications company that is owned by the people of Ketchikan — it’s owned by the community,” Cushing said.

He summarized, “As a community and as a company, we’re now in a position to control our future because no matter what the broadband future brings, no matter how much data the community needs and the customers need, we’re positioned to provide it. We’re no longer limited by the price or availability of some other company’s network.”