Telkom building SALT link at own risk


Telkom is building a fibre-optic link between the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) observatory and Cape Town, at its own risk, as negotiations have not been concluded, says Christiaan Kuun, a project manager at the CSIR’s Meraka Institute.

“Although negotiations have not been concluded and no fixed timelines have been agreed to, Telkom is starting to build the link between SALT and the Centre for High Performance Computing, in Cape Town, at their own risk and own cost,” Kuun says.

SALT, situated in the Northern Cape Province town of Sutherland, is the biggest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. It is seen as an important test case for SA’s bid to host the R160 billion (1.5 billion euro) Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

Critical to the success of SALT is the data link between it and the rest of the world, as astronomy observers and scientists do not come to it, but rather, the data collected by the telescope is transmitted to them, ITWeb reports.

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 had to be cut to compact disks and then driven back to Cape Town.

The original budget for the link was R10 million and the current needs are for a 155Mbps line. It will be operated on a five-year contract, after which the needs will be reassessed.

The line will be connected into the South African National Research Network, a project to link all of the country’s higher education and research institutions in a R90 million deal that Telkom holds.

“We are meeting with Telkom this week, and we would like to have the line between Sutherland and Cape Town completed by January when the telescope is commissioned,” Kuun says.

He would not comment on the state of the negotiations, or whether Telkom is arguing its initial quote is too low.

Kuun pointed out that the SKA connectivity bid would be handled by a separate tender process that may include participation from some of the other major telecommunications operators, such as Neotel and Broadband Infraco.

“But, right now, Telkom is the only company that has any direct presence in that area,” he says.

However, Marian Shinn, the Democratic Alliance’s deputy shadow minister of science and technology, maintains Telkom’s “quibbling” is putting the country’s SKA bid in jeopardy.

She has called on the new inter-ministerial task team, which has been set up to oversee the SKA bid, to get Telkom to explain itself.

“If Telkom had installed the link from Salt when it was first approached five years ago, rather than drag its feet, it would not be quibbling about the costs now. 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 says.

Telkom’s spokesman was not available to comment.