Something (or Someone) Broke Svalbard’s Internet; Authorities Seek Answers

Believe it or not, Svalbard, Norway has famously reliable internet — and has since 2003. The remote arctic archipelago sits almost 2,000km away from the mainland, at about 80˚N, but its nearly 3,000 residents have surfed the web for years, thanks to a network of fiber-optic cables that cover the distance underwater.

But sometime prior to the wee hours on January 7, something — or someone — cut one of the links. Now, Svalbard authorities undertake what could be a drawn-out investigation to find out what or who did it. According to Norway’s intelligence agency, blame could land on Russia.

Svalbard’s world-class internet takes a hit

Initially, multiple interest groups worked to establish the Svalbard Undersea Cable System to help the island’s satellite-receiving stations relay information to the mainland.

As soon as the switch flipped on, Svalbard’s population benefited distinctly. The island was among the world’s first to get a 4G network, and it’s been on 5G since 2019.

The connection runs through twin fiber-optic cables on the floor of the Norwegian Sea. The redundancy adds capacity, but also security. If one line goes down, the other simply continues to transmit.

Space Norway, the Norwegian Space Agency’s operational arm, now owns the system. At 4:10 am on January 7, it discovered a disconnection in one of the cables. It then traced the location to a precipice where the seafloor drops off dramatically from 300m to 2,700m.

Analyzing the situation, the organization decided to scale back non-essential activity until it could orchestrate a repair. Service remains online, but the limited capacity could last a while — Space Norway expects to begin repair work in February.

Possible causes: European authorities wary of Russia

Underwater fiber-optic cables commonly break, often by accident. Fishing gear or boat anchors are typical culprits, and their owners sometimes get held accountable in such cases.

However, the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS) reportedly stated in its annual threat assessment that Russia is developing the capacity to damage underwater pipelines and cables. Published in October, the document preceded comments by NIS Chief Nile Andreas Stensones in which he said Russia poses the “greatest threat” to the country in terms of cyberattacks.

British Defense Chief Sir Tony Radakin also recently alleged that Russian submarines pose an increasing threat to undersea communication cables.

It is, and likely will be, impossible to prove for quite some time whether Russia or Russian assets caused the damage. In the meantime, a host of other accidental causes threaten underwater pipelines and cables throughout the Arctic. In addition to fishing, icebergs and trawling can also damage cables.

Accidental incidents occur notably often. In one several-month period between 2018 and 2019, a fiber-optic cable between the Canadian mainland and Greenland broke three times. Two of the breakages were accidental, while the third remains unidentified.

For now, Svalbard locals can do their own research — albeit more slowly than they’re used to.

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.


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Marie
Marie
3 months ago

Oh dear, even if the Russians did not do it, now they know what to do for maximum effect…

Peter Flynn
Peter Flynn
3 months ago

I would like to know how a submarine could damage a cable lying on the sea bed?? A trawler is possibly the culprit.
The probable cause of the damage is natural given the turbulent and challenging environment. As if the Russians could be bothered sabotaging just one of the two fibers. Talk about paranoia.
Russia has mining operations on the Island and has an interest in maintaing infrastructure.

werwer
werwer
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter Flynn

Because thats what its designed to do. It is not a manned sub but a small (remotely operated vehicle) ROV, which have all manner of attachments for carrying out work on the seabed

Thrill seeker
Thrill seeker
3 months ago

Seems unlikely that the Russians would go to all the trouble to cut a cable for a small outpost?
However, Russia’s neighbors have had real issues with there Eastern neighbor for a long time, paranoia often comes from an abject mortal fear.

werwer
werwer
2 months ago
Reply to  Thrill seeker

Svalbard is a glittering prize for russia because as the ice cap is getting smaller up there there are unimaginable amounts of oil and gas. All countries are trying to claim massive areas of the arctic at the moment. there is a good Norwegian netflix drama series about it on netflix I think it is called “uccuopation” but in Norwegian

Bryan
Bryan
3 months ago

Russia has developed submarines specifically for the purpose of underwater cable cutting. Norway already mysteriously lost several kilometers of underwater cables that were connected to sensors capable of detecting submarines north of Norway. Not hard to guess who is responsible for that. Now the Russians are planning some “Naval exercises” in the Atlanic Ocean near where many transatlantic cables cross the ocean, while posed to attack Ukraine at any time.

Lovepeacelol
Lovepeacelol
1 month ago
Reply to  Bryan

This aged well…