The official opposition Democratic Alliance party says it has heard that the Department of Science and Technology is considering giving in to Telkom’s demand for more money to install a high-speed data link to connect the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) outside Sutherland to Cape Town.
Party science and technology spokeswoman Marian Shinn Friday urged minister Naledi Pandor “not to allow Telkom to get away with exerting this pressure on this strategic international space science partnership at this crucial time.
“She must lay down the law and demand that Telkom meets its obligations,” Shinn said.
SALT is the biggest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s successful operation is seen as an important boost for SA’s bid to host the R160 billion (1.5 billion euro) Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.
Shinn says the party believes Telkom is asking R23 million for this link – “R13 million more than was agreed on earlier this year.
“If the department caves in to Telkom’s demand – which essentially amounts to blackmail – now, this will set a dangerous precedent for the ongoing communications costs of this endeavour,” Shinn adds.
“The fact that this is playing itself out at the same time as SALT’s international partners are holding a board meeting in Cape Town (Friday) – and planning their real-time commissioning tests due for December and January – seriously jeopardises South Africa’s reputation as a credible research partner.”
In September, Phil Charles, director of the SA Astronomical Observatory, told Parliament’s science and technology oversight committee that the data link was late by five years.
This, he said, meant data currently has to be cut to compact disks and then driven back to Cape Town.
A Telkom spokesman said this morning in response to the DA allegation that the company “does not comment on speculation.”
The spokesman added that “Telkom and the Meraka Institute (an agency of the Council for Scientic and Industrial Research of the DST) have forged a strategic partnership to ensure the successful design, commissioning and implementation of the South African National Research and Education Network (SANReN). The current project is progressing well and the first nodes will become operational during December 2009.
“The SALT facility represents one of the major nodes of the SANReN backbone and technical feasibility studies have been concluded to provided a high-speed, optic-fibre connection to this site.
“At present, Telkom and Meraka are in the process of formalising the commercial parameters associated with the SALT location in Sutherland.
“Telkom remains optimistic in South Africa’s endeavours to secure the hosting of the SKA project and the company affirms its technical capabilities, competencies and capacities to provision the infrastructure required to support the SKA,” the company said in a statement.
Shinn this morning said the DA has asked both the chairpersons of the Science and Technology and Communications portfolio committees to request that Telkom appears before the committees to explain its role what the party calls the SALT “communications debacle.”
“Despite whatever interim solution is being negotiated now to resolve Telkom’s demand for additional funds for the high-speed data link to Cape Town there needs to be a full public explanation of why Telkom was able to place South Africa’s international space science partnerships in jeopardy by its tardiness in starting to work on the link and its last minute insistence on extra funding,” she says.
“It is unlikely this joint committee meeting will be held this year as parliament goes into recess next week, but the issue will still be pertinent next year.
“SALT’s international board members visited the southern hemisphere’s largest telescope near Sutherland at the weekend to gauge progress with the commissioning of the instruments. They also discussed the timetable for real-time tests of information received from the telescope by astronomers around the world. These tests were scheduled to start by year end and are dependant on the high-speed datalink being operational.
“I believe they expressed utter amazement that the telecommunications service provider could hold such an important international partnership to ransom.”
Shinn says she understands “that discussions to resolve this issue now include new entrants to the communications infrastructure market and may well offer a solution that offers newer technology than Telkom is able to do with its link from SALT to its existing high-speed cable running through Sutherland to Cape Town.
“A solution from an alternate supplier would further delay by some months the real-time delivery of data to SALT’s international partners. But is seems our scientists are seriously considering this option to free themselves from Telkom’s grip.”