By 2010 the US research station at the South Pole could have access to broadband internet, delivered by fibre-optic cable laid across Antarctica.
It may sound far-fetched, but the US National Science Foundation last week closed a call for initial expressions of interest for plans to get broadband to the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole.
The project, estimated to cost $US250 million, would involve laying fibre in the harshest environment on earth, where it would be subjected to super-cold temperatures and a moving ice base.
According to a initial information document released last month by Raytheon Polar Services, a contractor to the National Science Foundation, “data communication to and from the South Pole has become a critical issue in the ability of the [South Pole station] to meet the future needs of the scientific community”.
A summary of existing polar net facilities notes they comprise “ageing satellites in deteriorating geosynchronous orbits which can only offer limited communications between the continental US and the South Pole station ... their age makes them often less than reliable”.
The answer, the National Science Foundation believes, is “a trans-Antarctic fibre-optic cable from the South Pole Station to the joint French-Italian Concordia Station, located considerably further north”, with a bi-directional link at Concordia to a satellite linking the Antarctic to the continental US.
The cable must be able to provide permanent 384kbit/s access for videoconferencing and telemedicine and 256Kbit/s 24 hours a day, seven days a week service during the Antarctic summer for remote weather sensing and imaging on demand for aircraft.
Conventional net use at 512Kbit/s “24x7x365” is another requirement, as is a voice link at 128Kbit/s “24x7 on demand”.
The NSF estimates the US Antarctic programme may be generating 30Gb of data a day by 2010.
New Zealander Bill Day, chief executive of Seaworks, which lays undersea cables, says laying a fibre-optic cable across Antarctica would be “extremely difficult, but anything’s feasible if you’re prepared to throw $US250 million at it”.
The moving nature of Antarctica’s ice would present challenges, Day says.
“It’ll be harder than putting it on the sea floor, because of the movement and environmental factors.”
There would be logistical hurdles, too.
“You can’t get a ship to do the job, so you’d be limited by the amount of cable you can carry. You’d need to do joins; there are issues with joining glass at those temperatures and with metal hardening.”
The proposals document notes “the cable will be laid on top of the polar plateau and it is unknown how many summers it will take to install it”. The cable will have to be heated before it is laid down, and once covered with snow, the temperature is predicted to stabilise at -48°C.
The project would be subject to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (see Comparative Environmental Law Links).