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Spark to launch satellite-connected cell tower project
Thu, 30th Nov 2023

Spark, in partnership with Lynk, has successfully sent its inaugural text message via satellite, marking the beginning of a project plan to establish a network of satellite-connected cell towers across New Zealand. This pioneering move aims to ensure a basic level of mobile connectivity during emergency situations where traditional fibre backhaul becomes compromised.

The historical text was transmitted at 10:47am last Friday by Spark engineers. The message was sent from a standard mobile located in a mobile blackspot near Kawakawa Bay in Auckland, via one of Lynk's satellites some 500 kilometres overhead, moving at about 27 thousand kilometres per hour. Following this achievement, further trials will commence later in 2023, with plans for expansion in the upcoming year.

Beyond the introduction of the satellite-to-mobile technology, there are plans to station satellite-linked temporary cell towers across Northland, Auckland, Napier, Palmerston North, and Canterbury by year end. These will stand ready for rapid deployment if Spark's mobile network experiences significant fibre damage, offering hopes for future expansions in other locations.

Renee Mateparae, Spark Network and Operations Director spoke about the initiative, saying, "We want to leverage satellite technology to its fullest potential so that we can help our customers stay connected when they need it most." This application would make satellite connectivity accessible on mobile devices and assist in connecting cell towers back into the network during fibre damage situations.

Mateparae explained the importance of incorporating satellite technology in emergencies, as fibre cables, which are predominantly used to connect cell towers to the network, are vulnerable to disruption during natural disasters. For instance, during the Cyclone Gabrielle, Spark deployed satellite backhaul to reestablish tower connections, yet faced significant hurdles in accessing affected regions.

The new satellite-connected temporary cell towers are a strategic answer to providing more agile response capabilities. "Our longer-term ambition is to enable our strategically placed permanent cell towers to automatically switch to satellite backhaul if required, ensuring we can provide much-needed connectivity when our customers need it most," Mateparae said.

Alongside the satellite project, Spark is also exploring other resilience measures to improve network reliability during crises. These include increased capacity on cell tower reserve batteries, the use of automation to conserve power during emergencies, and extending the presence of generators in strategic places.

"Spark makes an annual investment of more than $100 million into resilience, and this remains a priority for our business,” Mateparae shared. She highlighted the role of evolving satellite technology in maintaining customer connectivity and ensuring a fast restoration of affected cell towers, as climate change continues to present an increasingly volatile environment.