Innovative radio and telephony partnership reconnects communities surrounding SKA Radio Telescope

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South Africa is known as an important global partner at the forefront of astronomy, with both optical and radio astronomy centres finding a home in the country’s sparsely populated Northern Cape. 

Local communities surrounding the Radio Astronomy Project, known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Radio Telescope, have had to pay the price of losing connectivity. However, an innovative partnership between Altron Nexus and Telviva has reconnected local farmers, SKA staffers and emergency services to the world.

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), a facility of the National Research Foundation, manages all radio astronomy initiatives in the county, including the SKA.

Radio astronomy requires radio silence for frequencies above 200Mhz and for facilities to be built in remote, high-lying regions. Terrestrial radio signals interfere with the signals received from deep space, which puts the science, which is reshaping our understanding of the universe, at risk. However, radio silence means just that. All radio frequencies that interfere with the telescope are banned, including cell phone networks and devices that produce radio waves. In a region where there are no analogue Telkom lines, the implication is that outside the confines of small towns where cell coverage is permitted, there is nothing except satellite communication. This comes at a significant cost as it has a negative effect on communities who are unable to communicate or respond to emergencies such as wildfires, crime and more.

A few years ago, SARAO enlisted Altron Nexus to provide a solution for this challenge. Altron Nexus runs the largest critical communications network in Africa and provides coverage to various bodies, for example law enforcement. Altron Nexus builds infrastructure that could facilitate radio communication in a small frequency band which is invisible and inaudible to the telescope.

Deon De Villiers, Business Unit Head for Altron Nexus in the Western Cape, explains: “We were requested to develop and provide a two-way radio network for the SKA itself and the surrounding community to replace the GSM networks – we were required to transmit below 200MHz. Over the past five years, we have built infrastructure which includes four high sites in the towns of Williston, Brandvlei, Vanwyksvlei and Carnarvon which serve SKA staff, farming communities, municipalities, emergency services and disaster management.”

He explains that Altron Nexus has had a long-term partnership with Telviva, a unified communication and collaboration provider, so the next phase of the radio project was a perfect match: how to pivot off a two-way radio network and provide users with the ability to make and receive phone calls to landlines and cellphones anywhere in the world. By integrating the Telviva platform as a middleware software solution, this was made possible.

“Telviva provides a platform to connect with the outside world. The infrastructure – the towers – are connected to a main switching office in Woodmead, Johannesburg, with Altron Nexus and from that platform, we break out into the Telviva platform which provides telephony connectivity to the rest of the world,” he explains. 

David Meintjes, CEO of Telviva, says the project is the culmination of a long partnership with Altron Nexus. “Telviva and Altron Nexus have partnered for many years, and so it only made sense for us to leverage our extensive experience and expertise in telephony and our Telviva platform to enable a public switched telephone network”. 

“Like Altron Nexus, Telviva exists to solve real-world problems in a practical and scalable way. The success of the project, which has moved from a proof of concept to being rolled out, is built on the foundations of a long-standing partnership.”

De Villiers explains that each farmer and user needed their own direct inbound number and not just a general group number. Telviva, he explains, manages the platform, and provides prepaid voice contracts. Cognisant of the importance of being connected in case of emergencies, Meintjes says the system is managed proactively and so if a user is running low on voice credits, he or she is alerted.

De Villiers says the impact on the farmers and surrounding communities has been profound and immediate. “Because there is no GSM coverage between towns, it meant that if there was an emergency, a breakdown, a fire or farm attack, there was no way to call for help unless there was satellite access. The two-way radios and the ability to call anyone anywhere in the world have drastically changed that and reconnected the community.”

Well beyond the immediate region, both De Villiers and Meintjes say the technology, which has proven to work very well, has the potential to positively impact many different communities and industries.

Fishermen, such as those in the Western Cape, go out into the deep ocean and need to communicate with families and sea rescue. This technology would enable them to have constant contact both by dialing out and receiving inbound calls. Outside of a variety of maritime use cases, there are fire rescue and other instances where people operate remotely or within areas where traditional communication channels are not possible.