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First Federal Broadband Point of Presence in the Arctic Paves the Way for New Research

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the farthest north point in the U.S., is a critical location for international Arctic research. Its history includes many decades of research by academia, all major U.S. science agencies, and international partners, making it a baseline location for Arctic research in the U.S. However, historically, poor network connectivity has limited the science and operations that can be done in Utqiaġvik.

Janet Duffy-Anderson, NOAA EcoFOCI Program Lead, and NOAA Knauss Fellow Chrissy Hayes rinse bongo nets used to collect zooplankton as part of research to monitor changes in the Arctic Ocean ecosystem. Photo Credit: Lindsey Leigh Graham/NOAA  

Using the internet requires a point of presence (PoP) — a local access point that allows users to connect to the internet via a service provider.  Leaders from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ASRC Federal and Quintillion gathered at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, to celebrate the official broadband Arctic PoP launch, which will provide more high-speed, reliable internet services in this remote region.

“This enables us to essentially improve the research infrastructure there, which will lead to a better understanding of our planet and climate change,” explained Tom Heinrichs, the deputy station manager of the Fairbanks Command and Data Acquisition Station.

Leaders from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ASRC Federal and Quintillion gathered at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, to celebrate the official Arctic broadband point of presence launch.  (Amaguq Media/Jessee Darling)  

NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) has two antennas located in Utqiaġvik, which are operated remotely from the Fairbanks Command and Data Acquisition Station. Polar-orbiting satellites circle the Earth from pole-to-pole 14 times daily and download data as they pass over ground stations in the Arctic and Antarctic. High latitude ground stations, such as those in Alaska and Antarctica, see the polar-orbiting satellites more times per day than lower latitude ground stations. This fiber optic internet means weather forecasters and scientists can receive data from the Jason and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) missions more quickly.

“With the new fiber network, we have seen an increase in the amount of data downlinked from satellites, as well as a decrease in latency,” said Stephen Volz, the assistant administrator of NESDIS. “This infrastructural improvement opens many possibilities for NOAA.” 

Stephen Volz, the assistant administrator of NESDIS, speaks during the ribbon-cutting event in Utqiaġvik, Alaska on Sept. 7, 2019. (Amaguq Media/Jessee Darling)

Prior to the PoP launch, “data flows from the North Slope to the rest of the world via domestic satellite links were notoriously slow with high latency and low bandwidth,” according to a press release from ASRC Federal.

The new fiber has upgraded the bandwidth from 1.5 megabits per second to 20 megabits per second, Vanessa Griffin, the director of satellite and product operations explained.

“So [that’s] 10 times faster data,” Griffin added.

With that extra bandwidth, Heinrichs said one of the short-term benefits is the ability to deliver higher-resolution products to the National Weather Service (NWS) more effectively in near-real-time.

Before Quintillion finished laying the final stretch of fiber optic cable in 2017, Heinrichs compared the speed of data transfer to using a satellite phone. 

“When you use a satellite phone, there's a noticeable delay in terms of when you talk to someone and they respond to you,” he said. “(It’s) the same thing with data.”

The Arctic is officially open for business! NESDIS assistant administrator Stephen Volz leads the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory. (Amaguq Media/Jessee Darling) 

In the long-term, Heinrichs said the expanded capabilities provide an opportunity for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) to explore new types of research that weren’t previously possible with the low-bandwidth, high-cost connections. 

“The OAR Earth System Research Laboratory hosts the NESDIS antennas alongside their atmospheric research instrumentation,” Heinrichs said. “The internet PoP collaboration among OAR, NESDIS, and the NWS in Utqiaġvik enables us all to do more and better work in the Arctic. It’s a great example of line offices working together, sharing costs and facilities, and leading to enhanced science and operations.” 

While the local community is already benefiting from better internet connectivity, Heinrichs said more research and satellite operations in the region could also boost the economy by bringing more jobs to the area.