VoIP smokes at minus 100 degrees in Antarctica

No roads lead here. There is no sun for half the year. The nearest place to get supplies is 800 miles away, the nearest city is some 3,000 miles away, and the only way to get here is by plane, weather permitting.

Welcome to the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole station home to just 250 people during the Antarctic summer and one-fifth that number the rest of the year. Until recently, their communications with the rest of the world were extremely limited. That changed with the arrival of voice over IP.

Jeff Thompson, a network engineer for the United States Antarctic Program(USAP), was responsible for upgrading communications links with the isolated Amundsen-Scott South Pole base.

Clearly, the rudimentary voice links that relied on ham radio and ATS-3, an ancient NASA satellite originally used to support the Apollo lunar missions, were simply not enough to meet the growing requirements of the scientists and support personnel at the South Pole.

But upgrading the system to handle the needs of a world-class research facility wouldn't be easy. Because of the station's isolated location and the frigid environment, building a new communications infrastructure would be very impractical -- since there are no roads leading to the station, equipment and workers have to be flown in by special military aircraft during the Antarctic summer. In addition, temperatures reaching minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit the rest of the year not only make prolonged work outside impossible, but also require equipment that can withstand the extreme conditions.

Then there were costs to consider -- laying an undersea cable beneath the churning South Atlantic and building a land link from the coast would total more than $200 million, while building a microwave link to McMurdo station, a larger U.S. base on the Antarctic coast with 24-hour T-1 access, would cost an estimated $45 million. Other options were also deemed too expensive.

In the end, Thompson's communications woes were solved by new satellite links and a new technology: voice over IP.

"The implementation of VoIP was the only solution that would allow voice traffic at a very small cost," says Thompson, a former Navy engineer who first came to Antarctica 10 years ago and is now vice president of technology at Holmes & Narver/McClier, one of the primary contractors for the USAP.

The key to setting up the voice-over-IP network was the arrival at the pole of three satellites -- GOES-3, LES-9 and TDRS F1 -- for data communications. In 1998, the University of Miami, which operates two of the satellites ground stations, installed a Selsius call manager and sent several Selsius IP phones to the South Pole for trials.

Thompson liked what he saw. "We tested them out during the summer of 1998/1999 at South Pole station," he says. "This allowed South Pole to make commercial toll-grade calls for the first time." Realizing the potential of voice over IP to drastically improve voice communications from the South Pole, Thompson and his colleagues began to explore ways to move from a testing phase to a full-scale implementation.

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