Warkworth Satellite Earth Station (1971)
Globalisation, Part 2
New Zealand sent its first phone messages to Britain by satellite in 1965 using INTELSAT-1, but the country really entered the space age in July 1971 when the Post Office opened its Satellite Earth Station at Warkworth, north of Auckland. NEC supplied the technology for the biggest advance in international communications since the opening of Wakapuaka cable station in 1876. The new station’s location showed how far the balance between the two islands had swung in 95 years. It was designed primarily for telephone services, but television was also a significant user. Viewers who had watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969 had had to wait for film to be flown across from Australia.
Warkworth was chosen because it offered a clear view of the sky, was away from airport flight paths and was relatively sheltered from high winds. The underlying rock was also strong enough to bear the 2300-tonne weight of the 30-m diameter dish and its heavy supporting structure.
Although satellite time was initially expensive and restricted to the most important items, Warkworth allowed us to televise the 1974 Commonwealth Games to the world live. The Post Office (later Telecom) added a second C-band dish in 1984 and a third KU band in 1988. Stations were also built at Wellington, Rangiora, Chatham Island and Scott Base.
Now, of course, more little grey satellite dishes infest the exteriors of New Zealand homes than wooden butterflies. And big dishes are going the way of the dinosaurs. In 2000 the new Southern Cross Cable across the Pacific captured 80% of the country’s voice traffic. Warkworth One was dismantled in 2008, and more recently the other big dish has been leased to Auckland University of Technology for conversion into a radio telescope. Warkworth’s satellite dishes still carry part of the load, but they are smaller, lighter and more efficient.
Technology conquered cost as well as distance. The 2000 New Zealand Official Yearbook estimated that the cost of sending a page of print overseas had fallen in real terms from $1315 by telegraph in 1938 to 59 cents by fax or less than 1 cent by email in 2000.
This site is item number 99 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.