Blighted by poor web connection

It can see to the edge of the observable universe. It can peer back in time to the aftermath of the Big Bang. Just don’t ask it to send the secret of creation by email.

The R332-million Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) is a globally renowned science facility with everything but fast broadband. Its astronomers find download speeds so slow that they are forced to send off their cosmic findings by road.

The problem is all too familiar to South African residents: painfully slow service. Politicians have called on Telkom to resolve the matter ‘before the country’s standing as a credible international scientific partner is irreparably damaged”.

Salt, on a hilltop outside Sutherland in the Karoo desert, is the biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere, with an 11m-wide mirror capable of detecting a candle flame on the moon.

Its investors include Germany, Poland, Britain, India, New Zealand and the American Museum of National History. But, although it can capture data 10-billion light years away, Salt is 18km short of the nearest fibreoptic internet cable.m Five years of negotiations to make the small step for man have reportedly stalled because Telkom is demanding R10-million.

Dr David Buckley, astronomy operations manager at Salt, said transmitting data from a single night’s observation took 24 hours or more, whereas ideally it would be done continuously in real time.

Asked if astronomers could use a website such as YouTube, Buckley replied: ‘Oh hell, no. We have to control what people do there. If you try things like that, it clogs the whole system. We certainly know it if people start downloading movies.”

Buckley and his colleagues frequently resort to putting their data on disk and driving 370km to the South African Astronomical Observatory, where it is processed.

‘We bring the data ourselves in a standard minibus or car,” he said. ‘This is something we work with here: pathetic broadband. It’s extremely frustrating because we started negotiations with Telkom in 2004 for broadband that would be efficient and affordable. They now appear to be reneging and we’re back to square one.”

The Democratic Alliance condemned the impasse. ‘If Telkom had installed the link from Salt when it was first approached five years ago, rather than dragging its feet, it would not be quibbling about the costs now,” said Marian Shinn, DA spokesperson for science and technology.

‘Salt is the pioneer project of our growing collaboration on international space research programmes. If we cannot get the data to our offshore partners on this project we can kiss our investment in space science goodbye.”

Shinn warned the fiasco could jeopardise South Africa’s bid to host the R1.6-billion Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. But a Telkom spokesman said: ‘The current project is progressing well and the first nodes will become operational during December 2009.”

In September, a pigeon by the name of Winston beat Telkom’s broadband service when he carried a 4GB memory stick from Howick to Durban in two hours — in which time the ADSL line had sent just 4% of the data. —

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