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Ketchikan Public Utilities is asking voters to approve an $11.5 million bond to improve internet access in Ketchikan. The money would finance running more than 100 miles of fiber optic cable from Prince Rupert, British Columbia – and the utility says it won’t have to increase rates. How is that possible? And why does Ketchikan need its own cable, anyway?

If you were to look at a map of all the internet cables connecting the Lower 48, you’d see a big bowl of spaghetti. Chicago is connected to Denver, which is connected to Des Moines and Kansas City, both of which are also connected to Chicago, but also connect to Milwaukee and Omaha and Dallas, which are themselves connected to Denver… and so on.

“That’s the web,” Cushing said.

Ed Cushing is telecommunications manager for Ketchikan Public Utilities. KPU is owned by the City of Ketchikan, and it provides broadband service for the city and surrounding areas. 

He says if you zoom out to Alaska, the map looks a little bit different. In fact, there are only a few links between Alaska and the continental United States. 

“Rather, you’d see four primary undersea fiber optic cables connecting  Anchorage to Seattle. And then you’d see one spur from one of those cables dropping into Ketchikan,” Cushing said.

So Ketchikan’s main link to the rest of the world is one big cable running thousands of feet under the ocean. All of Ketchikan’s eggs are in one basket.

“All four of the undersea fiber optic cables that serve Alaska run, undersea, over the San Andreas Fault and the British Columbia Fault,” Cushing said.

An earthquake on either fault could cut those connections. And if that happens…

“We’ll go dark,” Cushing said.

So KPU proposes its own link to the mainland. The solution involves undersea cable running to Prince Rupert. That would hook up with the land-based network and get Ketchikan’s internet traffic to Seattle over land.

“Nowhere near the San Andreas Fault or B.C. Fault,” Cushing said.

But it’s not just seismic risks. Cushing says the biggest motivation behind the new project is cost. Though the project would borrow $11.5 million, KPU insists there’d be no need to increase internet rates. 

Here’s why: Remember how all of Ketchikan’s internet traffic goes through one big undersea cable? KPU doesn’t own it – not all of it, anyway. It co-owns the cable with private-sector provider GCI, and it can only send so much data down its portion of the cable. So Cushing says KPU has to lease from its competitor.

“As a practical matter, we spend roughly a million dollars a year renting capacity,” Cushing said.

And if they want to rent  more capacity, it’ll cost even more. But if KPU builds its own cable, it won’t have to rent from anyone. And that’s why Cushing says building a new cable makes financial sense.

“So the savings we will realize by being able to disconnect the rented capacity will pay for the bond,” Cushing said.

And Cushing says because the new fiber optic link will be owned and controlled by KPU, its capacity is functionally unlimited. To add more capacity, KPU won’t need to lay a whole new cable – it’ll just have to upgrade the hardware on both shores. It can’t do that with the cable it shares with GCI. 

A GCI spokeswoman confirmed KPU co-owns an undersea fiber link with GCI — and that the utility can rent more capacity as needed — but didn’t offer further comment on KPU’s proposal.

Cushing says that ability to upgrade the cable later on will prepare KPU for a cloud-connected future.

“There is so much coming down the pike, relative to 5G and the internet of things and artificial intelligence,” Cushing said.

And lots of things that we can’t even really imagine right now. But one thing about them is for sure, Cushing says:

“They require huge amounts of data,” Cushing said. “Huge amounts of data.”

And for that, he says, Ketchikan’s going to need a huge, $11.5 million cable.

There does not appear to be an organized effort to oppose the bond measure.

The $11.5 million undersea cable project will be proposition 2 on the City of Ketchikan’s ballot. Election Day is October 1st.