Ascension Island – a six-mile stretch of volcanic rock in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean and part of the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cuna – is home to the BBC’s Atlantic Relay Station. Managed and operated by Encompass on behalf of the BBC World Service, the stations’ six powerful shortwave transmitters have been beaming critical radio broadcasts to millions of listeners in some of the remotest parts of Africa for more than 50 years.
The Encompass staff, and roughly 800 other people who occupy Ascension island, are in a unique position; they have to work together in order to survive! As well as the shortwave transmitters to look after, Encompass engineers also run the island’s Power Station (consisting of 5 diesel generators and 5 wind turbines) as well as the reverse osmosis plant, supplying electricity and drinking water to the island’s population.
Ecologically, Ascension is of special scientific interest. One of the last remaining habitats of endangered species including the Green Turtle, Sooty Tern and giant land crab. The island’s extinct volcano ‘Green Mountain’ rises to over 850 metres (2,600 feet) above the lava plains Georgetown (the island’s capital) and Two Boats Village which are the two main centres of population. Since the first British Naval base was established on the island in the early 19th century, Ascension proved to be a useful stopping off point for ships crossing the Atlantic due to its location almost half-way between Africa and South America, and it remains a strategic communications and logistics hub for both the UK and the United States. In the mid-1960s, the BBC built a relay station at English Bay on the northern tip of the island to transmit shortwave radio broadcasts to Africa and South America, plus a power station to provide the electricity and a desalination system for drinking water.
The practicalities and logistics of living and working on a remote rock in the middle of the South Atlantic, some 2,000 miles off the coast of West Africa, are awesome. Getting supplies, spares, and, of course, people on and off the island present an enormous challenge. Advance planning is essential; everything has a lead time of several weeks if not months. When the transmitter station needs a spare part, you can’t just drive to the local store or order online! Deep-sea fishing is the primary food source for the island’s inhabitants but providing meat and fresh fruit and vegetables is a major obstacle. A supply ship calls at Georgetown six or seven times a year en route from the UK to the Falkland Islands, and Encompass purchases extra capacity on the vessel so we can send fresh food for the staff every other month. The islands’ only ‘convenience store’ usually sells out within the first week of a new delivery! A very recent complication was that the ship was commandeered by the UK Government to provide emergency supplies nearer to home in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Until recently, reaching Ascension Island was relatively straight forward. An RAF plane bound for the Falkland Islands used to touch down on the island twice a week to refuel. However, there is currently a major project being undertaken to repair and resurface the runway, and until this is completed, regular access is limited to much smaller military planes. There is one commercial flight a month from Ascension’s nearest neighbour, Saint Helena (more than 800 miles, or a two-hour flight away), which links with Johannesburg. These few military and commercial routes are the only opportunities to get people and goods to and from the island.
The current situation with the runway has had a major impact on the island. Visitor numbers (which used to include the more adventurous tourists) have dropped dramatically, and the few commercial businesses on the island, such as its only hotel, have been forced to close. This presents an additional problem for essential visitors, specialist contractors, for example, to carry out essential maintenance and infrastructure projects for the BBC.
Over the past year, Encompass has completed several major projects on the island, including replacement of the power station roof and refurbishment of an accommodation block originally constructed in the 1960s to house the station’s builders and engineers. This provides much improved facilities for contractors who are about to start work on refurbishing the main water pipeline, which supplies drinking water to everyone who lives and works on the island. Later this year, a major improvement programme gets underway on the massive steel towers supporting the shortwave curtain antennas.
Getting fuel to the island presents a completely different set of challenges; an oil storage facility houses the fuel required by the power station. The oil depot holds around 6,000 metric tons of fuel which typically lasts about 18 months to two years. Ascension’s rocky coastline means that that to resupply the depot, a commercial oil tanker has to deliver oil via floating hoses offshore that connect the tanker into the oil depot. This is a particularly demanding and very skilled undertaking – and one with little room for error in such an environmentally sensitive location. In fact, the last delivery in 2018 took over a week to complete due to the particularly rough sea conditions and high winds.
The transmitter station on Ascension is as important today as it ever has been! Without all of the vital resources and services provided by Encompass staff on the island, broadcasting to one of the BBC’s largest audiences in the world would not be possible. Encompass Digital Media is a recognized expert in radio distribution with a global network of owned and operated transmitters. If you need to help discover the best way ahead to deliver a high-value experience to your customers, give us a call.