To the South Pole on MBone: First Live Multicast Connection

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April 17, 1998

By Paul Preuss, [email protected]

BERKELEY -- The first multicast video and audio link to the South Pole officially opened for business on April 1, between the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and scientists at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The Internet's Multicast Backbone technology -- MBone for short -- allowed the link, a method far less expensive than any other for exchanging live sound and pictures between remote locations.

In addition to scientists, school kids can get into the act. Real-time interaction via MBone between students in the United States and researchers at the South Pole will be featured as part of "Live From the Poles," an hour-long television special produced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Passport to Knowledge project, distributed by almost 300 public television stations across the nation and by NASA-TV at 1:00 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, April 28, 1998 (check local listings).

Instead of sending massive amounts of data to individual routers, MBone routes real-time communications over the net by distributing and replicating the multicast data stream only as needed, thus making efficient distribution of data packets without congesting any single router. The MBone was created by Van Jacobson of Berkeley Lab's Information and Computing Sciences Division (ICSD), Steve Deering, then of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, and Steve Casner of the University of Southern California. MBone's videoconferencing tools were develped by Jacobson and Berkeley Lab's Steve McCanne.

On April 1, several researchers at Berkeley Lab gathered around computer screens to exchange greetings with their colleagues wintering over at the Pole. "We have a long list of new and interesting things to ask you to do," said Buford Price of the Antarctice Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA), kicking off the first of the weekly planning sessions scheduled to manage the project's experiments, which use instrument probes thousands of meters deep in boreholes in the polar ice.

Hardware for the South Pole link, including miniature cameras, sound pick-up gear and circuit boards, was delivered to the Amundsen-Scott Station by AMANDA's Douglas Lowder earlier this year. Deb Agarwal of ICSD worked with Maria C. Perillo Isaac to put the link into operation.

Agarwal has earlier helped configure and install MBone connections for such DOE Collaboratory projects as the remote control of Beamline 7.0 at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source, a national user facility. Isaac, of the Lab's Nuclear Sciences Division, is interested in the educational potential of the new medium and has been working to help set up MBone links in her spare time.

In the MBone, Isaac sees "a great resource for kids who want real-time access to remote scientific locations." She hopes that eventually schools everywhere will be able to interact -- as some have been privileged to do already -- with astronomers at mountaintop observatories, biologists in the rainforest, geologists on the slopes of live volcanoes, oceanographers under the sea, and astronauts aboard the space station.

Carl Pennypacker, an astrophysicist who is active in the Hands-On Universe educational project, calls Agarwal and Isaac "the first two women to the Pole -- via MBone computer connection."

Pennypacker says that, although MBone is still somewhat experimental, he hopes the South Pole link will be "a prototype for the schools." Today's onscreen images are small and are usually transmitted at a slow rate, resembling a slide show more than a movie, and as yet few schools are equipped to receive the multicasts, although Pennypacker is confident the situation will change.

Nevertheless, MBone connections are unmistakably live. Among Maria Isaac's first words to the Pole were a complaint about California's El Nino-induced weather: "Too much rain." To which the comment from the South Pole was, "We don't have that problem here."

With the South Pole connection as a "proof of concept," in Pennypacker's phrase, he hopes the incentive for schools to acquire the new technology will make live science on the MBone only a matter of time.

"We were delighted to cooperate with the MBone team," says Passport to Knowledge project director Geoff Haines-Stiles, who is setting up the April 28 connection for schools, "to show that new technologies can literally take students to the end of the world . . . or anywhere else their scientific curiosity might lead."

To learn more about Live-to-Antarctica connections over the web, go to or For detailed information about MBone, go to

The Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California.

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