Latest addition to Real-Time Earth global network generates tech jobs for Aboriginal natives
When Viasat launched its new Real-Time Earth (RTE) facility in Alice Springs, Australia this month, it also activated a long-term, mutually beneficial partnership. Viasat gained an ideal location in which to expand its growing RTE technology, and the Aboriginal-owned company that built the facility got an economic boost that stands to benefit its employees for years to come.
Viasat’s RTE network provides Ground-Station-as-a-Service (GSaaS) to the earth observation and remote sensing satellite community. The service offers affordability and reduced latency through automation and geographic diversity on a pay-per-use basis. Viasat’s RTE service can support next-generation and legacy LEO satellites using the S-, X-, and Ka-bands, which enables operators to meet today’s and tomorrow’s data requirements.
In Australia, Viasat has contracts with the U.S. and Australian governments and commercial customers who are using the RTE antenna systems.
“This new facility will enable the advancement of how critical data for environmental, shipping, oil and gas, government among other industries is delivered on-demand around the world,” said John Williams, vice president of Real-Time Earth at Viasat. “We are delighted to announce the Viasat RTE facility in Alice Springs is now open for business.”
A crucial link
The Australia site is a crucial southern hemisphere link in the growing Viasat RTE system, which includes facilities already operating in the U.S. in the State of Georgia and the United Kingdom. Eventually the company expects to have 8-10 similar facilities worldwide.
The new facility is located at the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT), a 94-acre property in Australia’s Northern Territory. It’s an area rich in land, but with more limited economic potential – a formula that CfAT is designed to overcome.
Aboriginal Australians, who’ve made their home in Alice Springs for thousands of years, own or control about 40 percent of Australia’s land. CfAT creates opportunities for these Indigenous Australians to use their land resources for technology-based projects, giving them control of their future.
“Part of our arrangement with CfAT and part of the unique sweetness of this deal is we’re creating some highly technical Aboriginal jobs there for the local economy,” Williams said. “And we provided them with training so they can give us that local support we need for maintenance and operations.”
Eddie Fry, a Dagoman man (his Aboriginal heritage from the Katherine region in the Northern Territory) and chairman of an organization that helped fund the project called Indigenous Business Australia, agreed.
“It’s a great opportunity for Indigenous Australians to get involved in enhancing Australia’s space sector – a significant step in a sector that requires specific skill sets and management,” Fry said. “The project brings indigenous employment opportunities for the community, particularly new technology and technical skills to the region.”
Growth in the global space industry is driving demand for access to land on which to locate satellite communications infrastructure. Australia, which has large areas of strategically located land, clear skies, low radio interference, and access to fiber network on the ground, is a particularly good location for such ground stations.
“Alice Springs is really a sweet spot being in the center of Australia,” Williams said. “It gives us great coverage of the sky and is fairly RF (radio frequency) quiet.”
CfAT, whose workforce is more than 50 percent Aboriginal, owns and maintains Viasat’s commercial Earth ground station. While the facility only recently became operational, it took two years to build the required infrastructure.
“The development has directly provided employment opportunities for local Aboriginal workers – from pouring the concrete slab to the project managers as well as involvement in the assembly of the antenna, Aboriginal workers were employed,” Fry said. “The construction phase of the build amounted to over 3,500 hours of Indigenous workforce participation, which included the highly technical assembly of the two reflectors by 100 percent local Aboriginal labour.
He added that CfAT has also been awarded the facilities maintenance contract by Viasat, which will generate on-going revenue opportunities for the community. That includes using its new satellite ground station knowledge to help build STEM programs for young Aboriginal people.
“For over 65,000 years our people have cared for this country,” Fry said. “Providing people in regional and remote Australia with options for maintaining that relationship with country is so important for our culture and our land.”
Adding yet another twist to the unique partnership, the two companies opened the facility in the face of unforeseen obstacles presented by the coronavirus crisis.
Australian states and territories imposed strict restrictions on travel, which meant Viasat’s typical practice of sending U.S. employees to set up and test equipment wasn’t possible.
“We went to a lot of effort to find a local installation expert plus local Viasat folks to go there, and undergo the required quarantine to do the work,” Williams said. “The truck drivers that delivered materials couldn’t even get out of their trucks. So there was the excitement of all the hurdles we went through to get these antennas up and operational, and then obviously the huge excitement of opening up our first major RTE installation in the last couple years and getting it operational. It was a great global team effort.”
Viasat plans to open two more RTE facilities in the next nine months in South America and Africa. In 2021, it plans to open more sites in the Northern Hemisphere and is considering additional facilities in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.