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Live from the Moon: how we helped the world see Apollo 11

Network

Posted on July 19, 2019

9 min read

Landing on the Moon was the uniting moment of the 20th Century, bringing people of all nationalities together to look up and marvel at our collective achievement as a human race. Many nations played a role in putting man on the Moon and bringing him home, and Australia’s role was to facilitate a broadcast that would be watched by the whole world. Sadly, over time the names and roles of all involved have been lost or rearranged or forgotten. This is the story of the pictures you know, from those who showed our whole world the wonder of another.

In a world of misquotes, misnomers and misunderstandings around who said what and when, there’s a single quote that is always delivered correctly:

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Those words will echo in our collective consciousness for eternity. Indeed, 50 years later, they still haven’t lost their meaning. For all our differences in race, our language, our politics and more down here on Earth, space is a collective pursuit that unites us as a species.

Wherever we are in the world, we look up and see the Moon as it moves through the night sky. Mankind put footsteps on our closest celestial body 50 years ago on 20 July, 1969 – and humanity watched it happen.

The greatest show (not) on Earth

600 million people watched the Moon landing live on their TVs around the world. That viewership feels small when you consider that everyone now has a screen in their pocket, with the ability to live-stream worldwide events like the Olympics or a royal wedding – but in 1969, screens were hard to come by.

In the 1960s, televisions cost around $400 for a black and white model, and just shy of $800 for a top-of-the-line colour set, between 17 and 23 inches in size. The buying power of the dollar was also far less in 1969, with averageweekly earnings ranging from $63 to $72. With that in mind, hearing that people literally went out and bought televisions to watch the Moon landing, you realise the significance of those pictures entering people’s homes for the first time.

TV networks responded to this uptick in audience by feeding their huge demand for content. From the time the Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off atop a Saturn V rocket on 16 July, 1969, to when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon eight days later, hundreds of hours of broadcast was dedicated to the trans-lunar voyage – and its ultimate objective.

Long before TV networks all over the world were creating shows and news content from their own studios, it was decided that footage of Armstrong putting boot-prints into the lunar surface would have to come through Australia.

NASA struck a deal with Australia to help broadcast from the Moon, live, through Australian equipment, including the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station just outside Canberra and the Parkes Radio Telescope in regional New South Wales, among other supporting facilities.

But the signals didn’t simply flow out of the lunar lander and onto TV screens all over the world.

That’s where Australia’s Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) came in – Telstra, before we were Telstra.

When Apollo came to town

Connected to the handful of radio telescopes receiving data, video and audio of the Apollo 11 spacecraft was a facility in Australia owned by the Overseas Telecommunications Commission – OTC for short.

Established in the mid-1940s, the OTC was charged with the carriage of international telecommunications services in and out of Australia.­ OTC would go on to be amalgamated with the Australian domestic carrier Telecom, and would eventually become Telstra.

Part of the OTC’s mandate was to support NASA’s work in developing manned space flight initiatives throughout the early 1960s. OTC helped broadcast signals from the manned Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and supported the Apollo Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA) project. The ARIA program saw two Boeing 707s flying over the Northern Territory and New Guinea, with a tracking dish locked on the location of a space capsule in between Earth and the Moon. The telemetry it received was routed back to NASA via OTC.

So skilled were Aussie techs at routing clear and accurate signals back to NASA that after Apollo 8, the OTC received a special citation for its efforts supporting space flight. It read: “The dedication and skill of the leaders and all personnel… in maintaining reliable communications insured [sic] the success of the first manned lunar-orbit mission and made it possible for millions of people around the world to witness man’s first venture into extraterrestrial space.”

OTC equipment, facilities and staff became intimately involved with the program as the Apollo 11 mission drew closer, especially when it came to providing TV signals and audio from the Moon. OTC provided around 90 per cent of the telecommunications links in the Southern Hemisphere at the time, so it was the ideal choice as a carrier of crucial space comms back to Mission Control in Houston.

OTC’s main telecommunication gateway between Australia and the rest of the world was situated in the inner Sydney suburb of Paddington.

These days, the OTC’s Sydney Video centre is tucked in between trendy pubs and fashion boutiques, standing as a quiet reminder of our proud history connecting mankind with the Moon. Back in 1969, six floors of the OTC exchange building were overrun by specialist broadcast and receiving equipment from our friends at NASA in the weeks leading up to the lunar landing.

John Vossen, an OTC/PMG staffer working at Sydney Video on the day of the Moon landing, recalls that some NASA personnel had issues adapting their equipment to Australian standards.

Weeks before the landing when NASA staffers entered the building with their equipment, one member of the US team went out and bought a 240-volt plug, connected it to a wall socket and then plugged it into a decoding unit designed for video transmission. ”A loud bang and puff of smoke ensured the power supply was at its ‘end-of-life’”, Vossen says, before the crew procured a replacement.

The solution to the power problems? Running a series of generators to power 50-watt batteries attached to a builder’s plank, allowing the decoding unit to run for two hours at a time. Allan Hennessy, who joined the NASA group as an OTC staffer, said it was “just another job at the time”.

“All too easy,” he added.

Countdown

Security was tight at the OTC facility in the days leading up to Apollo 11. These days, we aren’t surprised by heightened monitoring and security screenings, but back in 1969 such precautions were bewildering to see.

The sensitive nature of the NASA equipment that transmitted pictures and audio from the Australian tracking stations meant that the front door of the Paddington exchange was sealed ahead of the landing. That meant all visitors and even the cleaning staff had to use the back stairs to gain entry to the newly upgraded international telecommunications fortress. Cleaners were even monitored by security and NASA personnel when they went through the exchange in the days up to the landing – just in case they tried to touch any of the carefully calibrated equipment.

Many OTC and NASA staff worked around the clock at the Paddington exchange building – “Sydney Video”, in their parlance – ahead of the lunar landing. All the equipment was installed, and staff began the process of checking once, twice, three times, to ensure that everything worked perfectly for this once-in-a-lifetime event.

The paint had only just dried on a lot of the facilities being used to broadcast the Moon landing in Australia, and the gear at their disposal was state-of-the-art by 1969 standards. Links between the Australian coasts had only jut been completed a year before the Moon landing, and the cable that sent data between Sydney and Melbourne was barely five years old.

We might scoff now at what was once considered state of the art, but with coaxial cables and only a few hundred bits of data being sent per second, OTC was able to work Moon magic – both for the broadcast and behind the scenes.

Through this equipment, Sydney Video received an incredible amount of data during the trans-lunar injection. The ARIA tracking flights, for example, received telemetry from the capsule as it made its way to the moon, some of which was received by CSIRO radio telescopes and routed to NASA Mission Control via the Sydney Video centre and its coaxial submarine cable. In a press release issued by OTC at the time, an OTC staff member said that the astronauts were impressed how “extremely clear and crisp” the link between the Apollo spacecraft and mission control was, given how far the radio waves had to travel.

The amount of bandwidth required to support the Apollo landing was huge at the time. The number of international circuits – 49 in total – used by the OTC for NASA in 1969 was more than the total number of circuits available in the whole country just 10 years prior . OTC hailed it as a success – not only for their being able to command this many circuits for a singular purpose, but to do so and still support the normal use of telecommunications services in Australia at the same time.

These days we take for granted the ability to watch a video and make a call simultaneously – we’ve all mindlessly tapped away at our phones while curled up on the couch watching TV – but in 1969, it was an incredible achievement.

As Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon on 20 July, 1969 (or 21 July local Australian time), the OTC team were at their posts, ready for anything.

Anything, including a change in the schedule that took everyone by surprise.

Tags: networks,

A next-generation network to handle the data demands of the future

Network

Posted on July 1, 2019

3 min read

With the future at our fingertips, technologies like a completed NBN, the emergence of 5G, machine-to-machine communications, AI and IoT will all individually and collectively require data – enormous amounts of data, which we have seen increase five-fold as we head towards 2020.

Our fixed broadband needs in our homes are ever-increasing due to the rising demands of video streaming and online gaming. 5G brings with it many clear advantages in bandwidth, capacity and reliability over 4G and 3G, but there are also many potential use cases that we don’t yet know about.

We see that our small, medium, enterprise and government business partners are also demanding higher bandwidth as they start to transform the experiences of their own customers.

On top of this, what we know unequivocally is that any new and growing technology will require data, plenty of it so people can seamlessly give purpose to our technology and applications.

It’s at this point when you can really start to understand a clear and obvious need for our Next Generation Optical Transport Network.

In 2016, as part of our Networks of the Future program, we accelerated our journey to build the Next Generation Optical Transmission Network – a landmark upgrade to our long-haul, regional and metropolitan data transport infrastructure.

This was no simple exercise, given not only the size and complexity of our network but also the challenges we face in Australia when it comes to the enormous distance between cities, and unique environmental factors in building next generation technology throughout some of the most remote and hottest regions of Australia. 

We have now successfully connected all of our inter-capital paths and our 121 NBN point of interconnect locations across our transmission network. We can now support up to 11 times the capacity of our legacy network.

The new infrastructure provides enormous improvements to the reliability of our networks; for example, we recently introduced a capability into our optical network which now automates the rebuild and migration of services to another path when we experience a network fault such as a fiber break.

With the meshed nature of the new optical network, we are able to quickly reconfigure the network to stand up new routing paths within hours to reduce the overall risk of faults – this is something that previously would have taken days. In the future, we will be able to reconfigure the network within minutes in the event of a service disruption, providing our customers unprecedented connectivity.

Our new optical transport network will also see the introduction of software-defined network orchestration, which will enable the fast turn-up of optic wave services for our enterprise customers through the digital stack. Where we have the infrastructure in place, customers will be able to activate new services within hours rather than days or weeks.

The Next Generation Optical Transport Network is a significant and fundamental upgrade to the hidden infrastructure that powers our business across Australia. Along with our other upgrades as a part of our Network Evolution 2020 program as part of our T22 strategy, this milestone speeds up the delivery of products for our customers, as well as making it easier and faster for our partners to connect to our network and develop their own offerings.

Tags: 5g, AI, IoT, networks,

Turning on the digital future of mining at Lihir

Business and Enterprise

Posted on June 25, 2019

3 min read

Together with Newcrest, we’ve switched on the first Private 4G LTE mobile network in Papua New Guinea at the Lihir gold mine. This next-generation network will allow for greater levels of safety, tele-remote operation of mining equipment, and autonomous systems throughout the mine, while seamlessly integrating into Newcrest’s existing Wi-Fi network.

We worked with Newcrest to design, stage, deploy and test the network at Lihir, implementing a Private LTE system that has been validated as a dependable and scalable networking platform for the mining industry – and one that will help mining houses digitally transform their operations to plan for the future.

Newcrest’s Lihir gold mine extends 300 metres into a volcanic crater, which has the potential to expose workers to elevated temperatures. Chris Jordaan, the mine’s general manager, says that tele-remote and autonomous mining technologies are fundamental to working the hot work areas that will become more dominant features of the Lihir operation in the future.

“The Private LTE network will be a great enabler for these technologies and coupled with the existing in-pit Wi-Fi network, we have been able to create a heterogeneous network that covers the whole mining lease.”

We’ve provided Newcrest with a tailored platform using Ericsson technology that will underpin its safety and digital mining ambitions and will help improve productivity and deliver new value and efficiencies to the business. They’ll be using it to further modernise the mine site to enable the use of current and future mining applications, including tele-remote and autonomous systems, more extensively.

Newcrest and Telstra Mining Services took what has become a best-in-class preliminary deployment approach with the network. Designing it for full production but initially deploying at two sites allowed Newcrest to validate the design principles, implementation techniques and practical capabilities of Private LTE before scaling their investment.

Crucially, the Private LTE platform also includes ‘HetNet’ functionality and rugged vehicle modems provided by Perth-based AVI that allow Newcrest’s connected vehicle fleet to seamlessly switch between LTE and existing Wi-Fi networks without impacting critical mining applications. The new system, completely independent from public mobile networks, uses dual-frequency base stations configured to provide coverage for Lihir’s long-term operations in the area.

Every kind of production vehicle asset that Newcrest uses at Lihir, including trucks, drills, excavators, dozers, shovels and barges, has been connected and operationally proven over the Private LTE network. The upgrade brings significant performance improvements in terms of reliability, speed and latency – boosting fleet efficiency and real-time visibility by 80 per cent.

Lihir’s Private LTE deployment will also improve the efficiency and safety of mining, according to Gavin Wood, Chief Information & Digital Officer at Newcrest.

“Safety is Newcrest’s number-one priority and the network Telstra Mining Services has built with us at Lihir will enable safer and more efficient mining using new technologies. The success of this project was 100 per cent driven by leadership and personal commitment of the Lihir’s OT / IT team working together with Telstra Mining Services.”

LTE is a future-ready platform for wireless communication in mining, and provides highly scalable communications that will be vital to the next generation of machines and systems in the sector. We’re proud to bring our extensive experience with our own networks to help Newcrest work towards the future of mining.

Tags: 4g, LTE, networks,

From Phnom Penh to Indigo West: three decades of connecting Asia

Business and Enterprise

Posted on June 25, 2019

3 min read

When it comes to creating telecommunications infrastructure, there’s not much that Andrew Hankins, Head of Network Evolution for Telstra Enterprise, hasn’t seen in his 30 years at Telstra. Here he looks back on some of his experiences, from Phnom Penh to San Francisco, where he helped create the networks that deliver connectivity as we know it in Asia Pacific today. 

When you think about the most connected places in the world, you might instinctively think of New York or Silicon Valley. But really you need to look to Asia Pacific where Hong Kong and Singapore lead the way. 

Recently, together with our consortium partners, we announced the Indigo West subsea cable was ready for service. Indigo has a capacity of 36 terabytes per second and promises very low latency connection between Perth and Singapore. It is one of the first ‘open cables’ and deploys cutting-edge engineering to offer about 200,000 times more capacity than cables carried in the 1980s

It’s fair to say things have changed since I first started at the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (the OTC – now Telstra). In fact, Indigo West is just one of many milestones in telecoms history I have witnessed in my 30 years at Telstra. 

In at the deep end 

My experiences in Asia started in the late 1980s. The OTC sent me to Cambodia where, like some other countries in the region at the time, networks were almost non-existent.  

Our first job was building out international connectivity with satellite stations in the country’s capital Phnom Penh. If you wanted to make a call out of the country, you had to connect to the circuits running either to Hanoi or Moscow. It was certainly a new experience given this was around the time of the end of the Cold War and fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Unlike my first postings at the Elizabeth Street office and the Oxford Falls Satellite station testing new antennas in the comfortable surrounds of Sydney’s suburbs, our work in Cambodia was characterised by frequent blackouts and trips to the Russian embassy to stock up on cornflakes. 

The United Nations arrived in 1992 with a mandate to restore civil government, hold elections and rehabilitate a country ravaged by civil war and military occupation.  

As the UN embarked on a nation-building program, we built a communications network for around 22,000 military and civilian personnel. This included the first mobile network in the country.  

Even with the UN’s large presence, it wasn’t without its challenges. Each network site had to be checked and cleared of landmines before we could start construction. And members of our team had to travel to the Khmer Rouge heartlands to install phone lines and satellite links.  

Soon the telecom market began to open up. Three mobile phone companies were allowed to set up and operate in the country. Between 1992 and 1995 we built a larger international exchange and infrastructure to connect the mobile phone networks. 

Starting from scratch, Cambodia effectively leapfrogged generations of technology, including copper fixed lines. At one point, the country had one of the highest ratios of mobiles to fixed line connections in the world. And that has continued to this day with over 25 million active mobile subscriptions for a country of 16.4 million people


Small cells bringing fast mobile coverage to where it’s needed most

Network

Posted on April 15, 2019

5 min read


‘Small cells’ are an important part of our mobile network, providing additional capacity in busy cities and metropolitan areas without the visual impact of a full mobile base station. They also enhance mobile coverage in regional and rural areas, often at a fraction of the cost of a mobile tower while still providing effective service to where it’s needed.

Small cells, sometimes referred to as ‘mini base stations’, are small enough that you might have already seen one in the suburbs around you without realising – they’re generally made up of one or two small antennas and a small equipment cabinet, typically installed on existing infrastructure like light poles, bus shelters, advertising billboards or payphone cabinets.

Because they’re compact and unobtrusive, small cells can be installed where a large tower or antenna might not be suitable. They typically provide mobile coverage to an area of around 200 to 400 metres from the cell itself, meaning they can be installed discreetly in busy commercial areas and suburbs without causing a significant visual impact.

We’re all using more data than ever on our mobile devices, and more devices of all kinds are being connected to our network every day. Small cells help us maintain the best performing network for you, and to meet the future data and connectivity demand that technologies like 5G will bring with them.

In our cities and suburbs, we’ve used small cells for years – since the 2G era, more than 25 years ago – to help handle the ever-increasing demand for mobile coverage and capacity. A small cell on a telegraph pole or street light helps to extend 4G coverage into a nearby apartment block, and small cells at city intersections manage the data demands of the thousands of workers that stream past on weekday mornings and afternoons.

We’ve installed small cells in many metropolitan areas, but also in regional and rural locations where it’s not feasible to construct a mobile base station. At Adventure Bay on Bruny Island off the coast of Tasmania, for example, we’ve installed a small cell at the beach to allow visitors to share pictures and videos on social media, as well as to make calls and send messages to friends and family around the world.

In the most remote areas of Australia, we even use small cells connected to satellite backhaul to bridge the coverage gap – bringing mobile connectivity to areas that have never had coverage before and that do not have the fibre infrastructure in place to suit a mobile base station installation. A satellite small cell already helps connect the town of Winton in Queensland – a sheep and cattle industry hotspot for the Central West region, as well as Australia’s ‘dinosaur capital’ – to the world.

Are small cells safe?

We’ve done extensive testing on electromagnetic energy (EME) around small cell installations, using independent accredited EME assessors, to fully answer this important question. Small cells use low power levels and are designed to comply with Australia’s mandatory EME safety standards, and our testing shows that EME levels near small cells are very low – far below EME safety limits, which themselves have a significant safety margin built in.

Using the example of a small cell in a metropolitan area providing extra mobile coverage and capacity to local homes and businesses as an example, our independent testing shows EME levels that are less than 0.2% of the EME safety limits – more than 500 times below the mandatory safe levels. Standing directly under a small cell on a street light pole produced the same result of less than 0.2% of the EME safety limits.

Even when a small cell is loaded with traffic in a busy area, EME levels are still very low and far within EME safety limits. We tested a small cell installed in a conference centre, and even at a close distance of two metres from the cell itself EME levels were more than 50 times below safe EME limits.

All small cells are specifically designed for the locations they are installed in. While we currently only use small cells for 4G network technology, we will use a range of different base station types including small cells for our ongoing 5G network roll-out. We only use small cells that meet the mandatory EME safety limits, and our independent testing shows real-world EME levels far, far below those safety thresholds.

Small cells give us a great, safe way to extend our 4G network coverage and capacity, including into areas around Australia that have never had mobile coverage before. For more information on our EME community advice, you can head to our Understanding EME website.