Home & Office

BoM floats idea of Antarctic subsea cable and satellite upgrades

Weather bureau responsible for one-tenth of the planet wants a fixed-line connection between Australia and Antarctica, but it has warned icebergs could be an issue.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor on
Image: Getty Images

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has pulled out its ultimate wishlist, and asked for one of everything by floating the idea of running a subsea data cable to Antarctica and improving satellite connectivity to its weather stations.

Writing in a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories' Availability and access to enabling communications infrastructure in Australia's external territories inquiry, the BoM called for fibre to be laid between Australia's Antarctic research stations of Davis, Casey, Mawson, and Macquarie Island.

"An intercontinental submarine fibre optic cable from Australia to the Antarctic continent would establish a reliable, high bandwidth, low latency communication service to Australian research stations for the next 25 years and beyond as a long-term communications plan," it said.

"Establishing an intercontinental submarine cable to Antarctica may be beneficial to Australian interests, and better ensure safe and secure operations in the territory by diversifying the communication infrastructure used to operate the Bureau's Antarctic meteorological services and allow for the expansion of services and capabilities across the vast continent."

A submission by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment provided an idea of the ambition of the BoM's request, an idea which the department endorsed.

"The Australian Antarctic Division is headquartered in Hobart, Tasmania. The distance from Hobart to the four research stations is 3443, 4838, 5475 and 1542 kilometres respectively," the department said.

Currently, the Antarctic Division uses C-band satellite connections from Speedcast at each of the four stations, which are capable of 9Mbps and have 300ms of latency. Each station also has a backup data link from the Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network, which provide a mere 0.65Mbps link with latency of 700 milliseconds.

"The capacity of a fibre cable would be in the order of tens to hundreds of terabits per second, with an individual connection having speeds in the ten to hundred gigabit per second range," the department wrote.

"Currently, there are no submarine fibre cable connections to the Antarctic continent, and such a connection would provide unprecedented speed and reliability, and would establish Australia as a key leader and international partner in the Antarctic."

However, the Antarctic environment poses some challenges, mainly in the form of icebergs.

"Approaches to shore would need to be carefully considered, as well as mitigation options and impacts if the cable connection were to be interrupted, especially if medical or safety systems evolve to rely on increased communications capability," it said.

"In situations where an approach to shore would be prevented by icebergs, intracontinental wireless communication would need to be developed."

Beyond cables, the BoM also floated the idea of improving its satellite connectivity options, including the launch of two geostationary satellites capable of connectivity and carrying out high-resolution weather observations which rely on Japanese satellite presently.

The BoM explained its remit covers 53 million square kilometres, borders 10 countries, and covers large parts of the Indian, Pacific, and Southern Oceans, as well as the Australian continent and its Antarctic territories.

"Today, the Bureau is reliant on commercial communication satellite providers to access a majority of our remote sites as well as the Antarctic research stations," it said.

"This presents a risk of general satellite technology failures from environmental space weather or other types of interference and a lack of sovereign control of the platforms. This could be mitigated by installation of an Australian Government satellite capability that serves our geographic areas of interest."

Last month, the Bureau similarly told the committee looking into developing Australia's space industry that the nation needed a sovereign satellite capability.

Around 20% of BoM sites on remote islands use 3G connectivity as a primary link, with low bandwidth satellite backup. The Bureau is looking at whether to use 4G and 5G connections instead, and using NBN satellites.

"One of the critical concerns for the Bureau is network latency. Issues with NBN satellite connections diminishing the throughput and transmission of information to the Bureau can result in delayed radar data processing and output to the operations centre and the Bureau's mobile weather app," it wrote.

"Additionally, impacts on telecommunications and video conferencing from network latency can adversely affect access to data products, integration with the operations centre, and staff communications at remote sites."

The Bureau said it would look at low Earth orbit satellite services like SpaceX Starlink once they become available.

In an earlier submission, Space X said it could offer services to Australia's external territories as early as 2022.

Building on previous comments from those on Norfolk Island calling for a cable connection, the Norfolk Island Central School said under a deal signed with Telstra, it should be allocated 5Mbps per student.

"Norfolk Island Central School should have an internet connection of approximately 1500Mbps," it said.

"To achieve that using the current, limited connection availability, we would need approximately 60 separate NBN SkyMuster Plus connections at school -- including the 60 satellite dishes -- and even then, the bandwidth is not guaranteed."

Related Coverage

Editorial standards