(Photo by Elizabeth Bourne)
Among the many peculiarities in the world’s northernmost ghost town was a lone “hotspot” where getting an often-spotty mobile phone signal was possible – which was how the handful of modern employees without a connection to the outside world said they preferred it as part of preserving the character of a truly remote Arctic settlement. But that’s now over – very likely to the relief for a rapidly growing number of visitors – as future ambitions are supplanting historic nostalgia as Pyramiden now wired for internet as well as phone signals.
Going online means credit card payments, online bookings and other practical and increasingly common tasks are possible as the Russian state-owned company Trust Arktikugol continues an overhaul that began in 2007 of the mining city touted as the idyllic Soviet worker community during its heyday from the 1950s to 1970s. In addition it upgrades the ability of all people in the settlement to reach the Svalbard’s governor’s office and other emergency officials, although Pyramiden employees already rely on satellite phones when necessary in dire situations.
It’s also a further vanquishing of the Soviet-era aura as the reopened hotel is being converted to modern European-style rooms, the culture/sports hall is adding amenities such as a cafe to the refurbished library and bright hues are replacing the faded communist colors on the walls of buildings.
“Previously we stood against the idea of supplying Pyramiden with the Internet and telephone connection,” wrote Timofey Rogozhin, Trust Arktikugol’s tourism director, in an interview conducted via social media. “First, we were afraid that the settlement would lose its atmosphere and on the other hand we had no technical solution to this issue.”
But about two years ago leaders there had a change of heart and asked Telenor about the possibility of going online, but the cost was prohibitive. But technical solutions have recently been possible allowing service to be installed – albeit with glitches and limitations on access by visitors in particular.
“We are absolutely sure – we want to revive Pyramiden and make it a living settlement instead of an abandoned one,” Rogozhin wrote. “Without Internet or telephone, its development in the present-day environment of the modern world would be impossible for two main reasons.”
“The first one is the need for making credit card payments and have the profit, as well as the possibility for providing services to our clients, so that they could pay for them. The second reason is not so much about security (because Pyramiden’s security is easily maintained via satellite connection), but more about the places guests choose for their vacation spots; it is obvious that most guests prefer places which offer some means of connection with the outside world.”
The first credit card payment in the settlement with the system was processed July 18. Anna Ivonina, sales director for Trust Arktikugol’s tourism subsidiary company in the settlement, told Svalbardposten visitors should still bring cash in addition to cards in case the processing machine is offline.
As for emergencies, there are no known instances where the inability to communication due to the lack of signals significantly impaired an emergency situation, said Police Chief Lt. Espen Olsen. But activating online service in Pyramiden has several potential benefits.
“Being able to phone the governor’s office by a regular phone when a emergency occurs will make it easier to get a good understanding of what’s is going on and what kind of help they need,” he said. “This can also be done with a satellite phone, even without regular coverage, but a regular cellular phone is preferred since ‘everyone’ has one and speech quality is often much better.”
The equipment in Pyramiden is operating in test mode throughout the settlement, although there have been some breakdowns, Rogozhin wrote.
“(The) 4G internet connection is more stable; audio connection is unstable at the moment, and there is no connection inside the buildings at all,” he noted.
The renovated cultural center and Tulip Hotell have a closed wi-fi network for employees for work-related tasks and “communicate with their relatives via different messengers,” Rogozin wrote, adding “we do not have plans for providing Internet connection in each and every spot in Pyramiden, the level of connection we have now is enough for us.”
Guests cannot connect to the internet at the hotel, but 4G service is available outside and an amplified signal may be provided in the future so hotel use is possible.
“We do not think it will have a big effect on how our guests perceive Pyramiden, because they will be offered an option of leaving their mobile phones in safety lockers,” Rogozin wrote.
Pyramiden’s ghost town status stems largely from the settlement shutting down essentially “overnight” in 1998 shortly after a plane crash near Longyearbyen killed all 142 people aboard, virtually all employees and family members heading to begin work contracts there. Years of abandonment and struggles by Russia to clean up the decaying remnants resulted in modern tourism offerings debuting several years later than hoped for, but the area has become a favored spot of artistic projects ranging from movies to albums to video games frequently featuring ominous overtones, as well as day and overnight tourists.