Government Series – Part I: Satellite Players Assisting the Public Through Civil Programs

By | July 1, 2009 | Feature, Government

The government often is both the largest employer and consumer of goods and services in a country, and in many countries a better description for the government would be a collection of entities with multiple interests and demands. For instance, citizens of the United States elect representatives on a national, state, county and sometimes local basis which provide various levels of service to different sets of the population. Each governing entity provides a unique set of services and must maintain its own infrastructure to serve constituents. Collectively, these many different forms of government represent a tremendous market opportunity for civil satellite programs in the United States and around the globe.

Non-defense government satellite programs are enjoying healthy sales growth with governments of all sizes showing an eagerness to adopt satellite technology. Although the market for non-defense satellite networks is dwarfed by military spending it is still an important one. "In general, non-defense satellite projects accounted for about 10 percent of overall government spending given that the thrust has been driven largely by military-related activities, specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Jose del Rosario, analyst for NSR. "The biggest opportunity we see in the United States is in broadband initiatives. NSR estimates in its "Broadband Satellite Markets, 8th Edition" study, released in April, that North American single-site satellite broadband Internet access services will be a market of over $2.4 billion. This is more than tripling from today’s revenues."

What types of satellite programs are resonating well with governments around the world? What does the outlook for satellite hardware and services look like for the next few years?

Fertile Ground

If you were to view a government entity as you would a large enterprise customer, one quickly sees that governments have the same basic communication needs as businesses. "There are a number of applications that governments have recognized where satellite technology provides significant advantages," says Mike Cook, senior vice president, North American Division, Hughes. "These include distance learning, continuity of operations, remote access, public safety, and video broadcasting." A number of departments of the U.S. federal government use Hughes for data connectivity, including the National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Agriculture Food Safety & Inspection Service and Forest Service. "Some of these clients are seasonal and some are full time," Cook says. "We work with many different branches of the federal government. Agencies can acquire our satellite and managed services through our GSA schedule, and other contract vehicles."

Hurricane Katrina was a defining moment on many fronts for the United States, and sometimes it takes a disaster of this magnitude to change the prevailing thought processes of an entire industry. Haunting pictures of a flooded New Orleans got the attention of telecommunication managers and carriers alike. Attitudes on business continuity changed literally overnight. No longer were two terrestrial circuits entering a building from opposite directions deemed adequate to insure continuity of operations. Governmental agencies quickly realized they must safeguard their networks against natural or man-made disasters. Continuity of government services and the ability of emergency management services to function during disasters became much more important. Hughes unveiled its Inter-Government Crisis Network earlier this year, which provides an example of how satellite communications can help governments continue to operate during disasters. The system operates over the Spaceway 3 satellite, which provides onboard switching and routing.

Dallas based Squire Tech Solutions has placed a heavy emphasis on serving the communication needs of government agencies which respond to disasters. "We see a tremendous interest from regional governments that want to use satellite communications to restore 911 dispatch centers," says Michael Zalle, vice president of sales and marketing, "Getting those regional centers back up and running is critical during a disaster. Satellite is the best answer." Squire Tech Solutions recently released its pCom 300 trailer, which was designed and built for emergency responders and mobility applications. The trailer incorporates a 0.96- or 1.2-meter auto-point antenna system capable of transmitting at speeds 10 megabits per second or more, a 10 or 25 kilowatt diesel generator, and a telescoping mast with internal cabling for lighting, video cameras or radio antennas. Squire Tech sells the pCom 300 directly to government agencies and provides associated mobile response satellite and phone services and also sells the trailer to other satellite service providers requiring mobilization of their unique network solutions.

"Telemedicine is another important application," says Zalle. "During a disaster, operations at many remote medical and triage sites are disrupted. Having a robust communication system in place allows experts from a distant location help triage incoming patients. In addition, we see video scene monitoring as a growing incident management application. For instance, a state’s governor may want to view and monitor live video from an important public transportation corridor. This is just one example. A government can monitor just about anything with live and stored video to better serve the public."

Broadband: The Trend is Your Friend

Broadband is the hottest word in government markets and with billions of good reasons. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $7.2 billion has been set aside to deliver broadband services to the unserved and underserved. As part of the overall funding, the U.S. Congress approved $4.7 billion for the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP). The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will administer the program and distribute the funds in grants. The Department of Agriculture will administer the remaining $2.5 billion through its Rural Development Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program. The Rural Development program’s mission is to increase economic opportunity and improve the quality of life for rural residents. The agency provides many programs for financing rural America’s telecommunications infrastructure, including broadband, telemedicine, and distance learning. Given their mission and successful track record, The USDA Rural Development was a natural choice to oversee loans and loan guarantees for the funds provided in the stimulus package.

The funding bill authorized by Congress included the terms unserved and under served without any definitions, thereby leaving it up to the agencies. Both the NTIA and USDA have requested public comments to establish rules for the proposal and awards process. The agencies are currently reviewing the numerous public comments they received and are gearing up to receive a tremendous number of proposals once the rules have been formalized. Hughes and WildBlue will be submitting proposals and are actively engaged in preparations. "We are targeting areas that have 100 households per square mile or less," says Lisa Scalpone, vice president legal and government affairs at WildBlue. "Satellite is ideal for bringing broadband services to extremely small communities," she says. If stimulus funds are to be used to expand the nations’ existing infrastructure, "in the case of satellite, this might mean two things: expanding space segment capacity and enhancing the infrastructure on the ground for satellite communications," she says.

"We see a tremendous interest from regional governments that want to use satellite communications to restore 911 dispatch centers. Getting those regional centers back up and running is critical during a disaster. Satellite is the best answer.

— Zalle, Squire Tech Solutions"

WildBlue is actively engaged in different research and development programs and is looking at a number of opportunities, both in space and on the ground to expand and improve its offerings to compete against terrestrial competitors. "One option which could be proposed is a new high capacity satellite to augment WildBlue’s existing in-orbit satellites. "The next generation of Ka-band satellites will provide ten times the capacity as compared to today’s on-orbit satellites with download speeds up to 10 megabits per second. We think a new satellite would be great for rural America and for the aerospace industry as well. Other countries are developing large Ka-band satellites for innovative uses. We need to consider this as a country as well. We shouldn’t fall behind the rest of the world in satellite broadband. "In addition to providing broadband services to the rural America, our proposals will help create new jobs. We currently have 2,000 dealers across the country but they are going to need to add staff to help with all of the new installations. In addition, aerospace contractors will need to add people to help with the design, construction and launch of the new satellite. One of the challenges of satellite technology is the up front costs. This requires financing but the capital markets are closed right now. Stimulus funds could help jump start the financing," she says.

Spacenet also sees the key challenge for satellite players being convincing those with funds to spend that satellite can do the job. "Satellite is clearly the best technology to meet many of the stated requirements. It’s available today, it’s more economical to deliver broadband to very rural areas and it’s much more cost efficient for an area with low population density," says Andreas Georghiou, CEO of Spacenet. "However, it became clearer that the terrestrial players were intent on making an apples to oranges comparison on bits per second and monthly service rates. What’s more, they were really making this comparison to satellite networks as they existed 10 years ago. While we’re more than happy to have an honest discussion that compares the economics of connecting rural areas with satellite versus terrestrial; at the same time, we thought we should take another approach and go on the offensive. The team at Spacenet really took a step back and said, rather than have a discussion on how we can compete with terrestrial on cost per bit per second, why not have a conversation on where terrestrial can’t compete with us?"

Spacenet is touting a solution it dubs Multi-Network Bandwidth (MNB) Switching that meets a number of broadband needs as defined in the BTOP, delivering a set of solutions terrestrial alternatives cannot match. MNB Switching essentially provides a pool of broadband for disparate users to draw from. By combing traditional users at "community anchors" such as schools, libraries or hospitals with occasional use users such as first responders at a county or state wide level, the system meets the communications needs of each user community in a way terrestrial cannot and less expensively than terrestrial options.

A state may have any number of local "anchor institutions" such as schools, hospitals or libraries in rural areas where broadband is not easily accessible. They may also have a number of first responders throughout the state who need a Continuity of Operations solution that can work independently, regardless of potential terrestrial disasters. By essentially allowing them to share the same capacity, first responders will have guaranteed broadband access that can support voice, video or data requirements, wherever and whenever they need it. The state government has what equates to a large pool of broadband access they can dedicate as they deem fit to help connect their most underserved constituents during the 99.999 percent of the time these emergency networks are not active. In the case of a disaster situation, the pool of bandwidth can be instantly repurposed to support first responders, or any other public safety organization. Regardless of the type of disaster, or the extent of damage to the terrestrial infrastructure, critical first responder applications will be supported, including Land Mobile Radio or connectivity to the public communications grid. During these emergency situations the anchor institutions will have access to reduced capacity, and will only experience slower data speeds until network operations are returned to normal.

A Vote for Satellite

Brazil has a long history of innovation in electronic balloting for elections. The better part of a decade has passed since the country moved away from paper ballots and moved to electronic voting machines. The lag time to collect all of the votes was reduced from nine days to less than a day. Using laptop computers and satellite phones, the data in the voting machines was transferred at speeds up to 9.6 kilobits per second (kbps). Although the system was a huge improvement over paper ballots, the whole country had to endure a 12-hour wait until the results were officially posted the next day.

In 2008 Brazil’s Tribunal Superior Eleitorial (TSE) issued a tender looking for an efficient, secure, and cost effective satellite solution which could be used to transmit election results from 1,125 remote locations. Tesacom, a StratosELITE partner based in Argentina, was awarded the contract but only four weeks remained until the election. Testing began immediately and BGAN terminals were deployed to every voting center. Shortly after the polls closed, each voting center sent in their results. Although it took only a few minutes for all 1,125 voting centers to transmit their data via their BGAN terminals, the results had to be certified, a process still done by human election judges. Four hours after the polls closed, the results were certified and announced at 11 PM, and for the first time in history Brazil new the results the same day as the election.

"For years, BGAN from Stratos has offered customized service delivery, performance and productivity to many demanding organizations worldwide," says Stratos President and CEO Jim Parm. "It was gratifying to demonstrate how BGAN and Stratos value-added services helped support a high level of electoral efficiency and fairness for all in Brazil."

The State of Amazonas in northeast Brazil is extremely rugged and remote. It is the largest state in the country and covers 1.5 million square kilometers. The Amazon is a challenging area to provide telecommunication services. It is just as challenging to provide educational services to the citizens who live there.

The population of Amazonas is relatively poor. Lacking the access to educational opportunities afforded to students in other Brazilian states, the Secretariat of Education and Learning Quality for Amazonas developed an initiative to enhance Amazonas high school students’ exposure to math and Portuguese. The SEDUC network, which is provided by Hughes Brazil, initially included 100 schools but was expanded to 400 schools throughout the last several years. Educational programming is delivered via high speed data streams using IP. A 500 kbps return channel allows the teacher to receive visual feedback from the remote classrooms. Prior to the SEDUC network deployment, the passing rate for students hovered at 60 percent and the failure rate was almost 13 percent. After the network was deployed, the passing rate jumped 17 percent and the failure rate dropped in half. Based on the success of the SEDUC Network, it was recognized as one of the top six networks in the world and received a gold medal in the IMS Global Learning Consortium’s annual competition for the high impact use of technology to support and enhance learning.

Gustavo Silbert, CEO of Brazilian satellite operator, Star One, sees the broadband market as a winner in the largest country in South America as well. "A potential market for us is social inclusion with broadband. Last year, Embratel won a very big project in Brazil to bring broadband access to 12,000 schools. They are using our C1 capacity to provide this broadband solution. Silbert sees satellite broadband as a risk, but the reward is worth the effort. "It is a risk if you consider satellite broadband a mass-market solution the way you see with some Ka-satellite operators in the United States. If you have satellites just for broadband solutions, costing $400 million to $600 million on a solution like that just for Latin America, it would be a huge risk. In most of the countries, you see the mobile operators are deploying broadband solutions very fast."

Governments of all sizes have come to realize that satellite technology offers a host of many benefits and market opportunities in the government sector for satellite equipment and service providers will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

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