I was fascinated when I learned that there was an ATM on Antarctica, specifically at McMurdo Station. Just because, you know, it’s not like your local ATM that they can zip a service tech out to. So to sate my curiosity, I gave a ping to Wells Fargo, who manages that ATM–and got a chance to chat with David Parker. All shall be explained.
This interview was conducted via Skype on January 5, 2010.
Widgett: David, if you could tell me first what you do for Wells Fargo…what’s your official title?
David Parker: I’m a Vice President in the ATM banking division.
W: So you’re the Vice President over all the ATMs globally, or how does that work?
DP: One of them. I actually run a group that includes what we call “ATM quality,” which is ensuring that our ATMs are working, that they’re live and operational, and that customers are having a good experience.
W: Okay, and we specifically wanted to talk about the ATM that I guess you’re in charge of there in Antarctica. So, you would be in charge of the quality of the experience of those people using that ATM in Antarctica?
W: Okay, that makes sense. Now, is there only one unit down there, or how many units do you guys have installed?
DP: Well, there’s actually two.
W: Ah, a backup. That makes sense.
DP: That’s exactly what it is. There are two pieces of hardware, but only one is operational at a time.
W: Ah. So that goes to one of my obvious questions, which is how exactly do you get service people down there to take care of it? So how do you do that? I mean, obviously, you’ve got a backup in place, but it seems that that would probably be one of your most challenging units.
DP: You know, that is a very good question, and you’re right it is challenging–certainly makes for a long commute for our servicers. I’m kidding there…tongue-in-cheek… No, actually, what we do–first of all, the cash on the ice is recycled. So McMurdo Station (which is the scientists’ station there on Antarctica)… any sort of venue, the cash is all recycled, and so there’s no cash vendor that has to go down all the time to a regular ATM to replenish the cash volume.
W: Right…there’s only so many places one can run with cash down there, I assume.
DP: Correct. So they may have, I don’t know…maybe a company store and that kind of stuff and they can buy stuff there…anyway, the cash is all recycled around.
W: Right. Now, when was this first installed?
DP: Oh, you know, I don’t know the exact date, but I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark here and I believe it was right around 2000.
W: Hmm. So what were they doing before 2000? Were they using…snow for currency, or what were they doing?
DP: (laughs) You know, I don’t know the answer to that…I don’t know what they were doing. You know, if you want I could kind of give you a little history of sort of how we got involved.
DP: I think the experiment or experiments that they are doing in Antarctica were part of one of the universities–or [had] heavy involvement from the university–and the university, I think, originally approached us and asked us if we’d put an ATM down there, and we of course had a very similar reaction to the one you just described, which was “Why would we need an ATM in Antarctica?” And I believe now that McMurdo is all run by Raytheon Corporation, and so that’s a little history of sort of how we got involved in it. But now, as I said, the cash is all recycled, it’s done by the employees there that work at McMurdo Station…and the other ATM…we have two ATMs there…one is operational at a time. The other is one that they can sort of cannibalize, if you will, for parts or spare things that they need to make the other one live and operational. We do send a vendor down about once every two years to do some preventative hardware maintenance on both of the ATMs, to make sure they’re operational, change out the belts and that kind of stuff, provide new cartridges…anything else hardware-wise that we would need to make sure that it runs. But as you can imagine getting somebody down there is quite a feat.
DP: And it’s obviously a trek, so it’s only done once every other year.
W: Now, is there anything special about those machines, because, I mean, just from my experience with ATMs: they go down seemingly every time you need them in some cases. Is there anything special that you guys have done to those machines that you can get away with sending somebody down once every two years? Because that sounds like an impressive track record.
DP: Well, the one thing that we’ve done, obviously, is we’ve trained the folks that are there on the ice to take care of the ATM, so they are basically self-servicing the ATM in the meantime, and then, like I said, just doing a really heavy, heavy preventative maintenance once every other year, and then having the other ATM that they can sort of utilize if there’s a problem with the one running at the time, they can switch it over or they can use it to change out parts and that kind of stuff, so it gives them some spare parts if it’s needed.
W: Right. So if I were to compare the guts or the actual machine of this to just another Wells Fargo ATM, it’s just a standard machine?
DP: That’s correct.
W: Okay. So you guys have the only ATMs down there, I assume…
W: So really you could say that Wells Fargo handles the ATM banking for an entire continent.
DP: (laughs) That’s true.
W: That should be in the literature. That sounds impressive just on its own.
DP: That’s true, and actually you know what…I think this was in ’98 when we did this, because the reason I remember that is that there was quite a bit of excitement when Y2K came around. It was the first ATM in the world to convert to Y2K because of the time.
W: Because we’re not going to be able to get anybody down there…
W: Okay, that makes sense.
DP: And everybody was interested in watching it to make sure there were no issues.
W: Nice. Okay, so obvious question then, I guess, comes next…I do not, myself, bank with Wells Fargo, so what would the service fees for me be like?
DP: It would be just like if you went to any other bank’s ATM. So if you don’t bank with Wells Fargo, if you went to one of our ATMs on Main Street, USA, you would pay the surcharge and then you could access that cash.
W: That’s impressive. And fair, somehow. Now, it seems to me that, I mean, obviously, this is not sitting out on the ice, I mean, it’s within the facility itself, but it seems like a very extreme location for an ATM. Are there any others that you guys have that you’re aware of that you think would beat this one out, or does this pretty much take the cake for right now? I mean, until you put one on Mars or something.
DP: (laughs) We’re not quite on Mars yet…
W: Not yet.
DP: I think this one would pretty much take the cake as far as the most unusual location. We do have a large presence in Alaska, so by that measure we’re at the North Pole and the South Pole.
W: There you go. Wells Fargo worldwide…that’s impressive. Again, one for the literature. Although you have to be careful, you never know…I guess Citigroup could be trying to install one at the top of K-2 to try to get some press from you.
I’m curious what he meant by “recycling” the cash–do the employees restock the machine or something? The answer seemed obvious to you, but I got confused. How did you take him to mean that? Interesting interview, by the way. Thanks for posting it!
BD: What I took him to mean is that because McMurdo is a very finite space–as opposed to your local ATM where money could easily wind up across the country–they only need X amount to take care of the place for Y amount of time. Eventually you put enough cash in an environment and you’re covered. That being said, I’m thinking it’s even less of an issue these days with debit and credit cards. That would be a followup question at some point: how has the usage of the machines dropped with time? Because just like Antarctica was a dress rehearsal for a Y2K-friendly machine, Antarctica would probably go completely and utterly cashless before anywhere else.
Thanks for the comment!
I have used the ATMs at McMurdo several times. I was deployed in support of the US Antarctic Program, at South Pole Station in 2007/2008.
At both stations (and I would assume Palmer Station, though I have yet to visit there) there is a general store which also handles free movie rentals. Alcohol, snacks and souvenirs are sold to resident workers and visiting dignitaries.
As a Wells Fargo customer who lives in Colorado, I paid no fees to use the ATMs. Which is amazing, as Wells Fargo is ridiculously militant about charging high fees to use anyone else’s ATMs.
Additionally, as all phone service is VOIP, your local telephone calls from the US bases come out to the terrestrial network in Colorado, hence, it is a local call to my Colorado friends, even from one of the most remote places on Earth (when the satellites are visible).
Bouldergeek: Thanks for the comment: lots of good information. If you ever find yourself back on the ice, access Needcoffee and send me an e-mail. I’ve been trying for years to get confirmed traffic from all seven continents. Six down, that last icy one to go.
I’m not so amazed at the cashpoints being there, more at how Americans will put wood trim or panelling or literally anything…
The rest of the world salutes you, your tastelessness knows no bounds !
In the 70s here, some people dressed their kids in wood trim. So yeah.
Posting from Antarctica! Figured I’d try again via an SSH tunnel since your site thinks I’m spam when using any conventional method … hrm.
The lines terminating in Denver is great. I changed my Google Voice number to a Denver one, thus I can call it for free, then from there the entire USA! woohoo! :)
Scott: You rock, sir. No idea what’s going on with the Bad Behavior plugin but you just flat out rock.
Ping from Greenland.
Awesome, Alex. Thanks for the ping!
What about availabllity? they don’t have 24/7 internet and phone, so do the ATMs only work during certain periods? I see that the polar webcam isn’t down for the season yet.. (http://www.usap.gov/videoclipsandmaps/spwebcam.cfm)
Nate: That’s a good question…I appreciate everybody’s comments with other questions. My plan is to get enough of those and do a quick followup, probably over email…
There is a difference between McMurdo (where the ATM is) and South Pole. McMurdo has 24x7x365 coverage, due to their latitude position. South Pole does not, for the same reason.
Without knowing how the ATM communicates (I would assume encrypted phone transfers via VOIP, but what do I know), it should be able to function at McMurdo just like any ATM in another location.
There are no ATMs at South Pole.
Wells Fargo has an ATM in Antarctica and yet they still don’t have service in Oklahoma….
why do they even need cash at all there? i would have thought everyone’s using debit cards and such for everything from stores to coffee machines down there.
This sounds like a good material for a movie! :)
kto: Poker games, of course…
Widge: Only a single ATM works at a time and it’s a dedicated circuit.
Commenting from South Pole! A friend sent me a link to your interview. As another Polie already mentioned here, we don’t have ATMs at Pole since our satellite coverage isn’t continuous. We also don’t have credit card or debit card usage for the store. We request a certain amount of money deducted from our paychecks and our HR guy hands us the cash every two weeks — or for the people who aren’t Raytheon employees, they write checks for cash. We use it to buy personal stuff in the station store: alcohol, cigarettes, soda, candy, toiletries, etc. There are also souvenirs like clothing and postcards and such, but that section obviously doesn’t get much traffic in the middle of winter when there is no traffic going in or out of the station. This year we have 47 winterovers (36 men and 11 women) and we’re looking forward to seeing the sun again in a few weeks.
Sue: Thanks for stopping by and for the info!
Where does the recycled money come from? I’m sure those ATMs don’t take deposits for incoming cash so how do they “recycle” cash?
Also, if the people there are trained for maintenance, why would you need the vendor after 2 years? I find the story very intriguing!
Mr. Parker said he wasn’t quite sure what they were doing before the ATM was installed – there was a man on the History Channel TV show “Pawn Stars” that had a receipt from one of these very ATMs who explained it. Apparently they had about 6 people down there to dispense cash and putting an ATM in saved the government a lot of money and made more room for the scientists. You can read the transcript of the episode here, starting at about 00:12:45:
Erik: Excellent find. That had to have sucked for the six guys after they got downsized. “It says here on your resume that you used to…dispense cash at the end of the earth? And that…qualifies you to do…what, exactly?”
I’m currently in McMurdo at the moment. To answer the questions as to why we would need an ATM, there’s only one place that accepts debit/credit cards and that’s the store here. Everywhere else(bars, post office, poker games etc.) all require cash. And a purchase in the store requires $8 for a debit/credit transaction, and some people only need a $3 toothbrush. Plus, it’s a backup for technology. Like as of right now, out store’s security softwear for Visa and Mastercards are outdated. They told us that at any time, their POS may reject our cards. It hasn’t happened yet, and only 3 weeks until the first flight of the season. Hopefully that answers some questions.
Zachary: Brilliant comment. Thanks for the info.
What currency do you think these machines vend?
FatDad: Hell, that’s a great question. Are there ATMs that give you a choice of currency? If I ever come round and talk to them again, I’ll ask.
The bastards were always out of deposit envelopes making night deposits impossible. This all snowballing into over 3k in overages over the course of two years with them before they decided to drop me.
Hi Ryan: Um…are you saying this about Wells Fargo in general? Or just the ATM in Antarctica? Because I have to admit, your use of the word “snowballing” in this context makes me wonder if you’re being serious. Well, you’re on this website…and I know we’re hardly ever serious. So.
I worked with Cisco and onsite USAP staff to restore communications to this very ATM last night…
Azbrad: Nice! Thanks for the check-in.
This is fascinating. Can you wire money to someone in Antarctica? How long would it take?
Troika: I assume it wouldn’t take any time at all. Most money moves around electronically as it is, so as long as the Internet’s working, I would guess you could get zapped some money.
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