At the Subsea Networks EMEA event in London last week, NORDUnet presented its plans for the Polar Connect cable, a new subsea cable connecting Europe to Asia via the North Pole. NORDUnet has been granted fund under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF-2 Digital) programme for the preliminary study of the project.

NORDUnet is a collaboration between the National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) of the five Nordic countries, i.e., Denmark (DeiC), Finland (Funet), Iceland (RHnet), Norway (Uninett), and Sweden (SUNET).

NORDUnet has initiated its Vision 2030.

Under the Vision 2030, NORDUnet and the Nordic NRENs are looking into a number of initiatives to investigate and planning the first submarine cable system between Europe, Asia, and North America to secure a shorter route through the Arctic Ocean. An area so far without any submarine cable systems, yet offering this unique route that will dramatically increase resilience of the connectivity.

Two different specific solutions are being investigated. A direct route passing under the ice cap of the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean, just North-East of Greenland. And an alternative route through the North-West Passage between Greenland and Canada. A submarine cable system passing close to the North Pole via Exclusive Economic Zones would be shorter and thereby minimize latency, however, also more complex in terms of technology and thereby somewhat further into the future. 

NORDUnet has sponsored Copenhagen Economics to prepare a report, The Economic Value of Submarine Cables in the Arctic, analysing the key societal benefits in the Nordic region from potential new Arctic submarine cables, and how R&E networks can play into this arena.

According to the report, the need for more resilient infrastructure, such as data centres and submarine data cables, to support continued digital transformation has been recognised by the EU. Several policies have been adopted, including financing EUR 300 billion to boost critical infrastructure. A key EU priority is to strengthen connectivity with global trading partners. Increasingly, businesses are relying on solutions that require the ability to transport data at speed and a high degree of reliability and resilience between continents. Yet existing cables, for example to Asia, are relying on congested, expensive, and unstable routes, such as through mainland Russia and the Suez Canal.

Polar Connect initiative, Image courtesy: NORDUnet

 

The Polar Connect initiative aims to establish a subsea fiber route from Sweden via Norway and Svalbard through the North Pole to Japan, South Korea, and the Asia-Pacific region via the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. The cable will run through the middle of the Arctic ice sheet, running just west of the Geographic North Pole.

The Polar Connect project is expected to improve network resilience and deliver the shortest latency from Northern Europe to Asia.

Running over the Polar Connect, the cable length between Norway and Japan is approximately 10,000 km, more than 50% shorter than existing routes either across the Atlantic, the US continent and Pacific, or from Europe to Asia via subsea cables through the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, or over terrestrial cables via Russia, Cental Asian countries and/or China.

The Polar Connect  cable route will be inside the exclusive economic zones of “friendly” countries

Further more, the Polar Connect project will look to incorporate SMART repeaters to enable greater scientific research of the Arctic seafloor.

The Polar Connect cable is intended to be deployed 2028-2030, as it need to align with funding cycles and the above-mentioned challenges needs to be resolved. 

NORDUnet has been granted fund under the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF-2 Digital) programme for the preliminary study of the Polar Connect project. The project will start in Q1 2024 and run for 3 years, with a total budget of 5.75 million Euro. 

In last December, NORDUnet received funding from the European Commission for the North Pole Fibre project. A project that aims to deliver strategic network resources as per the European Union’s Digital Global Gateway strategy, to improve the quality and resilience of network connectivity between Europan Union countries, and between the European  Union and third countries. The granted North Pole Fibre project has been turned into the Polar Connect project.

In addition to the Polar Connect project, NORDUnet has invested on another trans-Arctic subsea cable project, the Far North Fiber (FN), a joint venture between Cinia, US-based Far North Digital, and Japan’s Arteria Networks.

The 14,000km FNF project will run from the Nordics to Japan, via Greenland, Canada, and Alaska as well as West Coast US. That cable aims to run via the Northwest Passage – a sea lane running through the Arctic Archipelago of Canada and south of Greenland – rather than through the geographic pole.

Rather than compete with Far North Fiber’s plans, the Polar Connect cable would complement the Far North Fiber, offering resilience and diversity of route. Both cables would likely land in many of the same places, including Prudhoe Bay in Alaska.