There are no cities, few people to ruffle the penguin feathers, and it's almost twice the size of Australia. It's colder, drier, higher and windier than any other location on the planet. Ice builds up to four kilometres thick to cover the land which seven countries claim as their own. Notably, they all put these claims to one side to cooperate in the throes of the Cold War and sign one of the most successful international treaties of all time. And if you thought Antarctica was one of the last great wilderness regions of the world, it is. But it's also in need of just as much connectivity as any regular office.
Australia's Antarctic Territory constitutes 42 per cent of the continent and our closest station — we run four — is at Casey, some 3443 km away from Hobart.
The organisation responsible for overseeing Casey, Mawson, Davis and Macquarie Island, and helping with many high-priority scientific research projects is the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD); a part of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.
AAD telecommunications manager, Peter Yates, started out as an expeditioner at Mawson station in the 1980s.
"At that stage we had telex communications and we had radio telephone calls, so over the short wave radio," Yates said. "It’s progressed rapidly over time — we now have satellite bandwidth to all stations of around the 512Kbps mark and that provides full Internet connectivity, email, and all our voice services are VoIP over that bandwidth.”
Yates has been taking care of all the telecommunications for the Antarctic operations for 12 years, while a separate IT manager looks after the Hobart office. He explains that at each of the stations there are roughly 20 people during the depths of winter, while during summer this doubles at Mawson and Macquarie Island and quadruples at Casey and Davis. The stations have modern living quarters, workshops and importantly, research labs that produce a lot of data needing to be sent back for evaluation.
“The AAD actually own the earth terminals or satellite stations at the four stations," Yates said. "We currently run through Telstra back to their international stations in Perth and Sydney. So Macquarie Island runs into Sydney and the other three stations into Perth. Then we lease bandwidth of IntelSat, but through Telstra and their arrangements.”
In addition to running some of its own science programs, such as physics experiment at Davis station with the operation of a LIDAR, the AAD supports organisations like GeoSciences Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM). In many situations, the external organisations will provide the equipment and know how for research programs and AAD will do the operation.
The priority data comes back straight away, Yates said. So with things like GeoSciences Australia and their magnetometers and seismic data, that is transmitted in real time so they get up to date information on what is happening.
“There are some programs that could transfer a lot more data and we are going through a process at the moment of having a look at some of that and seeing what maybe required. One example is the Bureau of Meteorology in conjunction with us, installed an X-Band weather satellite facility out at Casey 12 months ago. That receives information from a whole range of different satellites passing over Casey and it downloads an awful lot of data for them. Their initial thoughts were that they wanted a 2Mbps link out of the station to send all the data back in real time, and I don’t think even that link would be able to do all the data that is sent down," Yates explained.
"But because it is just too expensive for the AAD or BoM to provide that, their solution at the moment is to put some fairly high-powered processing equipment at Casey so they process all the data there and then just send back the finished products via our existing network. But we have, in fact increased the size of the network, so Casey runs at 768Kbps to accommodate that extra data.”
Often non-critical data is written to removal storage such as DVDs along with backups and sent back with the Aurora Australis, the ship that transports adventurers back and forward.
But while some may think because Antarctica is a wild, windy and highly remote place the weather has to impact the telecoms, Yates disagrees.
“Not in terms of day to day operations. Our actual terminals, our antenna which are seven and a half meter diameter dishes are enclosed in a radome. They are fully protected from the surrounding environment. Our’s are light blue and 12 metres in diameter. They provide protection from the strong winds and that type of thing,” he said.
“That was one thing we were very unsure about when we first started putting in the satellite systems into Antarctica because no one had any real data on how they would perform. We have found that operating at C-band, we get very little interference from blizzards and that type of thing as far as the actual attenuation of the signal to the satellite is concerned.”
In recent times, the AAD has also focussed on improving connectivity services to the Aurora, which carries around 100 staff, and has upgraded the infrastructure at the Casey airfield with new Inmarsat BGAN facilities; an always on connection that can run up to 300-400Kbps as a shared service.