The tragedy of losing SKA on bandwidth

It would be a tragedy if Australia and New Zealand lost the proposed $2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project due to the price of our bandwidth.

It would be a tragedy if Australia and New Zealand lost the proposed $2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project due to the price of our bandwidth.

Leaks surfaced this week saying that a confidential report by the SKA panel had judged South Africa's bid to be stronger than Australia and New Zealand's to host the world's most powerful telescope, which will be able to survey the sky 10,000 times faster than existing technology.

Behind the joint bid is $400 million in Australian state and federal funding, as well as a decade of scientific work. Included is $80 million being spent on supercomputing resources to crunch the numbers for the telescope and other projects.

However, the investment doesn't appear to have been enough to get us over the line, which seems absurd. How could developed nations like ours, with stable political environments and massive broadband projects lose out to South Africa?

Can it really be true that we, on either side of the Tasman, will lose out because of higher costs for power and transmitting the large amounts of data to be created, as the reports state?

Paul Brislen, chief executive of the Telecom Users Association of New Zealand, expressed outrage that the expense of NZ bandwidth meant the country was set to lose out on this "opportunity to stamp New Zealand's place in the scientific community".

He quotes NZ-born grid computing personality Ian Foster as saying that New Zealand lags so far behind the rest of the globe in connectivity that universities miss out on taking part in global research.

Data transfers on the scale that Foster talks about are common around the world, but would make the average New Zealand user duck for cover. The Hadron Collider, for example, puts out 15 petabytes of data a year. We don't get direct access to that amount of data because of the cost.

This isn't a science problem, or an innovation problem. This isn't about the SKA contract going elsewhere. This is the solution to all our economic troubles being ignored and pushed aside. This is an economic tragedy unfolding. Instead of New Zealand being seen as the place where innovation thrives, where talent wants to live, it becomes the place where we could have filmed, could have built, could have grown but chose instead to be poor.

Of course, governments at both sides of the Tasman will cite their own extensive investments in broadband to refute Brislen's claims. As ZDNet Australia reported last year, Innovation Minister Kim Carr said that Australia's National Broadband Network was one of the drawcards in the trans-Tasman bid. New Zealand, which has its own ultra-fast broadband project, no doubt stressed its own broadband credentials.

The final decision hasn't been made yet, but if we do lose the bid, will it be for other, political, reasons, or because our broadband projects are somehow lacking?


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