French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF) (episode 3): the possibility of a social life by satellite

11 May 2022

In this third and final episode, we’re going to take a look at telecommunications in the TAAF, a major challenge for these isolated territories, where keeping in touch with the rest of the world is paramount to survival, from a human as well as a scientific standpoint. The mission entrusted to Telespazio is nothing short of a request to build a genuine communication channel between people, using the satellite resources deployed, even in the most remote corners of the world.

For an initial duration of three years and as part of the contract signed with the French Government, Telespazio’s mission is to optimise the operation and management of the VSAT stations for the three archipelagos that make up the French Southern Lands (the Crozet Islands, the Kerguelen Islands and Amsterdam Island) and for Antarctica.
​​​​​​​The term VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) covers all types of two-way satellite communication technology that use dish antennas with a diameter of between 2.4 m and 3.6 m. Satellite internet services are therefore VSAT connections.

We talked to Martin Hoez, network / security engineer and project manager in charge of the TAAF, who works for the Telespazio France Telecommunications Service.

What does Telespazio France’s mission in the region involve?

The objective is to deploy powerful VSAT satellite communication technology, in place of older equipment that needs replacing, to train the technicians who’ll be using it on site, and to carry out documentary work. It also involves setting up a new secure network architecture on four continents. Preliminary work on the VSAT stations in the Southern Islands began in March.

What are the major constraints you have to take into consideration?

We need to make a distinction between actions carried out on site and those performed remotely. On site, our job is to manage the VSAT station and its related satellite capacity. An antenna is installed at a remote location (that we want to connect to the rest of the world). First of all, it will be hooked up to a satellite then linked to a teleport that acts as a hub for several customers. The biggest constraint is logistical – how to handle equipment and people. The second is to make sure that our work has as little impact as possible on the activities of the people on the islands, which is where change management comes into play.

Can you describe the work that needs to be carried out on site?

If we take the example of a satellite change, our work involves repointing the antenna and replacing any equipment that will be out-of-phase with the technical needs of the new satellite. In other words, the router, the satellite modem, the LNB (Low Noise Block-Converter) and the BUC (Block Up Converter). The latter is what we call the “transmit side” of the VSAT system – it amplifies the signal and converts the frequencies transmitted by the modem to those of the new satellite. And the LNB is the “receive” side of a VSAT that amplifies and converts the frequencies received from the satellite to the modem for internet and intranet connections, between the local network and the antenna. The connection is made possible via the network hub, which links up the modem and the TAAF functional networks on the islands.
All of these operations are covered by extremely detailed procedures, backed up by preventive and corrective maintenance task cards that help us analyse failures and replace faulty equipment if need be.
On top of that, we are able to manage the network equipment and modems from the teleports in Europe and Australia and from our offices in France.

And can you tell us about the operations that are performed remotely?

For example, we need to rebuild an intranet that allows us to connect the islands to the TAAF intranet in Réunion in a secure way, making sure – for governance and data security reasons – we set up a VPN based on the location of the teleport. The current teleport is in Germany, which is fairly simple, but in other cases, such as the mission in Antarctica, the teleport is based in Australia.
The architecture design changes depending on geographic constraints.

Who manages telecommunications in the TAAF?

They are managed by facility management staff based in Réunion, namely the Telecommunications, IT and Networks Service. They also have one or two people in charge of radio communications and networks on each of the islands and in Antarctica.

Is training provided to the staff based on site?

Yes, but the training is not delivered on site. For each of the three islands and Antarctica, training is provided in Paris once a year. For one week, members of the armed forces selected by the TAAF, with a background in network administration, are trained in all types of satellite technology, flow rate calculations, procedural reviews. No particular satellite expertise is required, since we train the operators in our own solutions and systems.
The training course is split into several parts, the first is a theoretical course in satellite communications. The second deals with the installations found on the sites, network and security architecture. The third part explains the tools in place to allow them to maintain the installations as effectively as possible, as well as the means of communication and incident-handling resources. These include the preventive maintenance task cards, for example, that enable us to check the condition of the equipment according to a predetermined cycle, so we can detect faults and plan replacements. The corrective maintenance task cards are used to resolve specific problems such as loss of the internet or intranet connection, loss of the telephone network, and so on. A user manual containing all useful references is left on site so that technicians can perform initial tests on the equipment and fix some bugs remotely.

How will the new installations improve current telecommunications?

Each of the islands will benefit from a greatly improved high-speed connection, thanks to the shared bandwidth. Specifically, whenever one of them is not using it, the others will get a higher network speed (up to 9 Mbit/s).
For the telephone network, we drew up a quality-of-service policy which has resulted in excellent call quality for staff on site – they can even make video calls.

What is the scale of the mission in Antarctica, and who is in charge of it?

At the moment, there is only one antenna on site, and it is used jointly by a multidisciplinary scientific and technological research organisation, the French Polar Institute (IPEV) and the TAAF.
The current antenna is up and running; however, all the needs of these entities have to be taken into account, and some equipment needs replacing, without compromising business continuity or cutting communication.
We need to make sure that the system can communicate properly with the existing modem, calibrate and reset the power of the replacement equipment, replace the TAAF modem and check its registration on the satellite. Once the new modem has been set up, a firewall to encrypt data from Antarctica and a router will be installed.
I was in charge of managing the project and designing the network and security architecture, liaising with our network engineer. On site, an experienced, versatile member of our “installation” team carried out this mission last December. After a 15-day quarantine in Australia and a 6-day boat journey, he had 6 days on site to get the job done. The return journey took another 6 days. The boat does 5 round-trips per season, from the end of October to February, carrying people, goods, food and equipment. Working conditions are extremely challenging.

If we were to sum up the main objective of Telespazio France’s mission, what would it be?

We can hardly remember what our lives were like, how we used to communicate with our friends and family, or how we managed our professional network before internet, or even what life was like before we had good-quality mobile coverage everywhere in France. In the TAAF, the current means of communication seem totally alien to us. Going beyond the mission we were tasked with, managing to connect people who live and work on site, and putting them in touch with their families and the rest of the world, is a fundamental part of Telespazio France’s DNA. As key players in space innovation, we are driven by our commitment to providing bespoke solutions and services, and making “space” available to as many people as possible, so that it becomes a true vehicle for connectivity between people.


Photos credits: ©Eric Mévélec

​​​​​​​Learn more about the French Southern and Antarctic Lands.

Re (or reread) the other episodes of our series of articles about the TAAF:

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