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.

There were several factors that had to be taken into consideration. Because the South Pole's location falls well outside of the footprints of most geosyncronous satellites, direct links are only possible with satellites in highly inclined orbits that are only visible at certain times of the day.

Because of LES-9s limited bandwidth, it was relegated to handling low-speed Internet traffic only. TDRS F1, however, could easily manage voice-over-IP traffic on its two-way, 1024K bit/sec data link, while the satellite's one-way, 6M bit/sec transmitter could be used for the transmission of large graphic and datafiles by the astronomers, physicists and climatologists working at the South Pole. GOES-3 was also assigned voice over IP and data traffic.

At the South Pole, and at the satellite ground stations at the University of Miami and White Sands, N.M., Thompson and his colleagues gradually took on the task of expanding the voice-over-IP system. Since last June, a number of new components have been installed at the South Pole station's communications building and several outlying structures, starting with a half-dozen Cisco 12 SP+IP phones, which are plugged into a Catalyst 2924M-XL distribution switch with two 100BaseFX uplinks to a Catalyst 6509 core switch.

From there, the voice-over-IP traffic travels over fiber-optic cable to a Linux-based Netmax Firewall, then to a Packeteer PacketShaper 2000, where quality-of-service standards are applied. The traffic is then passed on to a Cisco 4000 router, and either sent to the satellite dish for GOES-3, or to a Cisco 2500 router that oversees traffic to the TDRS F1 satellite uplink.

The GOES-3 voice-over-IP traffic arrives at a ground station in Florida, where it is channeled via two T-1s to the University of Miami. The TDRS F1 traffic, on the other hand, is downlinked to White Sands and then sent over the NASA backbone, which is connected to the University of Miami by two T-1s.

At the University of Miami, the voice-over-IP traffic arrives at the university's Windows NT-based call manager before being passed off to either a Cisco DT-24+ digital voice-over-IP gateway or to one of two analog Selsius gateways, which are connected to the university's PBX. According to Thompson, there were some integration issues at the university, but these have since been overcome. Still, after his experience building and tweaking the South Pole voice-over-IP system, he hopes future product releases will include "Unix-based call managers and the ability to move phones from subnet to subnet with zero reconfiguration."

Overall, however, Thompson is extremely satisfied with the voice-over-IP phones. He adds that more improvements are on the way, in line with the South Pole Station Modernization (SPSM) project, a $128 million endeavor to modernize the living quarters, scientific equipment, support buildings and IT infrastructure at the Amundsen-Scott base and outlying scientific structures by 2005.

"We currently have six phones scattered around the station, and as part of the SPSM we'll [probably] be installing a total Ethernet-based phone system. We will, however, have analog copper lines for 911 services," he says. Other upgrades under consideration involve adding up to 15 more IP phones, incorporating a planned link to the Marisat F2 satellite and building a new ground station at the South Pole.

There is also talk of discarding the Ethernet-based phone system in favor of a different architecture that would include a traditional PBX with a voice-over-IP interface at the pole.

Cost-wise, Thompson is pleased with the way voice over IP has worked out. The Cisco IP phones cost $350 apiece, and much of the other recently purchased gear was included in the budget for the ongoing SPSM network upgrades. "My network upgrade budget for this year, which included a core switch, eight distribution switches and the Packeteer, was around $175,000," he says. "We got really good pricing."

Users who have tried new voice-over-IP system are ecstatic with the improvement in communications. Steve Barwick, a scientist working on the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) astronomy project at the pole, remembers all too well the days before voice over IP.

"When I first started to come to [the] pole in 1992, communication was very restrictive," Barwick says. "Bandwidth was limited, so e-mail was censored to ensure that only business-related communication took place. For personal communication, a ham radio was used to patch to the phone system in the U.S. Sometimes four people were listening to your call, so privacy was not a strong concern."

Barwick says there is a direct correlation between the integrated voice-over-IP/data traffic system and the amount of science that can be conducted by the AMANDA team.

"The voice-over-IP phone is now a useful scientific tool, since we can call from any phone at the station. This is a wonderful advance," Barwick says. "Imagine what it was like two years ago. If there was an unexpected problem and we needed to talk to a colleague in the U.S. or Europe and the satellite was up, we would walk about 1 kilometer to the phone, then usually wait for a clear period, and then get a busy signal or no answer. Compare that to now. We can call from the building that we normally work in. If the person on the other line is out, we can leave a message and that person can call us back. Voice communication becomes a viable tool when there is this level of convenience."

Thompson agrees: "VoIP has really changed the way we do business."

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