Satellite helps bring bank ATMs to frozen frontier

Cynics may propose that there are three key signs of a civilized society - television, fast food and money machines. By this gauge, Antarctica is two-thirds there, thanks to the installation of two automatic teller machines.

The ATMs operate 24 hours a day and serve primarily as cash-dispensing machines, accepting all major credit cards and cash withdrawal cards. To reduce administration costs, they do not accept deposits. Previously military and other personnel at McMurdo were allowed to cashchecks up to $200 a month at a facility provided by the Navy. Civilianswere given the option of drawing money on the paychecks they received while at the ice. Cash is necessary to buy items sold at McMurdo, such as snack food, postage stamps, camera film and drinks from the bar.

With the departure of the Navy, Antarctic Support Associates (ASA); based in Denver, Colo.; assumed the role of providing banking services. ASA personnel administer, restock and service the machines. Although withdrawals are deducted from the user's account, the actual cash is recycled through the ATM after it has been spent at the station. Any revenue generated from the use of debit and credit cards goes to Wells Fargo Bank. The company was contracted to install the two machines and also processes the transactions on its banking network in the U.S.

The installation marked the first time Wells Fargo had used a satellite for ATM communications and presented a design challenge to the installation team. "Our engineers worked closely with the ASA engineers," said Fauz Kassamali, the Wells Fargo project manager for the installation. They needed to build a link from Wells Fargo's data center in Roseville, Calif., to the ASA home base in Brewster, Wash. From there, the link went to a satellite and down to McMurdo station in Antarctica, Kassamali said. "This design required more communications equipment than the land-based linkages."

From the Wells Fargo center in Roseville, the ATM appears the same as any other cash machine. "The satellite link has been remarkably reliable. We do not see any difference in reliability between the ATMs supported by land lines and the ones on satellite link, " Kassamali said. The unique location of the ATM meant that an extra ATM and sparecommunications equipment was shipped to McMurdo well ahead of the installation date. Two Wells Fargo engineers and a NCR Corp. technician were flown down to complete the installation.

According to Gerry Roliz, the senior network engineer and second Wells Fargo person to oversee the installation, thorough testing of the communications links prior to the actual installation meant that once some cabling issues were resolved the machine was bought online in less than three hours.

The first machine was installed in January 1997, with a second going online in November the same year. Initially, the second ATM was set up as a backup, but was then made operational.

The ATMs reduce 'on ice' staffing and make it easier for station personnel to have access to money while at McMurdo, according to Susan Lee, dispersing specialist for ASA. "Most people seemed pleased. It has made it easier to access money at any time; day or night," Lee said.Still, there's one item that the ATMs won't help people buy: fast food. Thegolden arches haven't made their way onto Antarctica quite yet.

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