Rural Telephony: Bridging Rural To Urban

By | June 1, 2003 | Feature, Telecom

By Nick Mitsis

High in the Peruvian Mountains, satellite technology became a life saving tool for a wounded Israeli hiker, two friends and members of an isolated village. According to Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd., a group of hikers decided to explore the trails and take in the vistas of the Peruvian Mountain country, but none expected this experience would end in a fight for survival in one of the most rural areas of Peru. The excitement surrounding the three friends as they trekked through the South American mountains turned into a nightmare as one of them, Or Aricha, slipped and fell down the mountain, becoming immobile from head and leg injuries. Realizing the severity of the situation, Aricha’s friend Gena Kravtsov walked for five hours to the nearest village, which luckily was outfitted with satellite phone services, contacted the Israeli Embassy in Lima and a rescue party brought a happy ending to this story 24 hours later.

That satellite uplink from the rural village atop the Peruvian Mountains to the country’s capital city ran 22,300 miles via a Gilat-established system. Working with Peru’s national telecommunications investment fund Fondo de Inversion en Telecommunicaciones del Peru (FITEL), Gilat established a telephony network to more than 6,000 rural communities throughout the South American country.

The Big Four Remain Lucrative

Recognizing the lucrative, potential markets like South America offer satellite companies, Gilat, continued to further establish its presence throughout this region and beyond. In addition to Peru, Gilat also is established within Colombia. Last year, the company won a contract to deploy more than 500 tele-centers and a 3,000-site Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) rural telephony network within this country. This $65 million system is in addition to the already present 7,415 sites that include 670 Internet sites, serving four million people.

"Even though we have seen a decline within the VSAT market due to the global economic state, our recent Colombia deal has been the largest financial deal for Gilat in recent years," says Gil Shachman, director of marketing telephony for Gilat. "There has been a major change in service needs when we talk about rural telephony. Three years ago, it was strictly telephony service, now it is telephony and Internet service," he adds.

Seeing the profitability of these new service needs, Gilat recently deployed a fixed rural satellite telephony network to serve 170 communities throughout Nicaragua and established a 200-site broadband satellite communications network in Haiti. Likewise, Gilat has established similar systems in Mexico, Asia and Africa.

"Gilat has been a market leader holding more than 70 percent of the rural telephony business, but given the current global economic state, it will be interesting to see how they maintain their strength and profitability," says Greg Caressi, research director of information and communications technology practice for Frost and Sullivan. "We see Asia as holding the biggest market growth potential, Africa also is growing and there is also some activity within Eastern Europe and Russia," he adds.

Hughes Network Systems (HNS) has witnessed a growth in demand for rural telephony throughout Africa and other regions of the world. The company, for example, has seen a need for expanding basic telephony VSAT applications within Gabon, where a network of 50 sites will provide voice communications to those living in rural areas. "Recognizing the market’s changing needs, HNS is positioning itself primarily as a provider of broadband services and products, not merely a rural telephony provider. We are more frequently bundling both voice and data services as we deploy our systems throughout these regions," says Ramesh Ramaswamy, senior director of international sales and marketing for Asia- Pacific for HNS. "We are seeing a demand for high-speed Internet services in rural areas and can overlay voice service onto the Internet backbone systems so both services are offered," he says.

In Australia, for example, HNS is bringing broadband access to more than 10,000 sites, linking farmers throughout the remote areas of the country. "A significant trend we are seeing is that more and more countries are increasing their emphasis on establishing networks to provide enhanced communication access," he says.

In addition to Australia and other areas throughout Asia, HNS recently expanded a communications network in Brazil. Working with the System for the Vigilance of the Amazon (SIVAM), HNS added new broadband applications, including file transfer, Voice over IP, fax and video broadcasting. SIVAM is a communication infrastructure established by the Brazilian government, which collects data from satellite, aerial sensing and surveillance, fixed and mobile radar, radio-localization, meteorological stations and altitude weather balloons. The data collected helps detect environmental changes in the Amazon Basin, such as deforestation and illegal airstrips.

"Typically, development into rural areas has been driven by government subsidies fueled by the need to provide a better communications infrastructure to their citizens," Ramaswamy says. "The payphone service within the Amazon jungle network is an excellent example of that."

Bureaucracy Hard To Beat

But make no mistake, working with government agencies can be challenging, especially when dealing within the rural telephony market niche. "The most Important ‘first step’ to establish an international business relationship is to identify the correct officials to work with," says Kathryn Holman, vice president of Telenor Satellite Services. "The main point of contact in most cases still remains within the local telecom provider, and working with those officials to meet regulatory requirements and satisfy their communications needs remains paramount for business operations."

Nevertheless, Telenor has made strides to overcome such obstacles and has seen some growth within new vertical markets. "Remote communications are needed for forestry and logging, aerial mapping and real-time reporting of forest fires, as well as tele-care services on aircraft for flight crews who need medical care–[these] are all growing applications for satellite rural telephony technology," she adds. "Essentially, being able to aid and help people who are in emergencies is one of the hallmarks of rural telephony as it pertains to our industry. Remote or rural are now relative terms, not out of touch as these words once described, thanks to satellite." In fact, now in some rural areas, ambulances can directly download patient information, as they are rushing to the hospital–as a result, being remote no longer means being out of touch.

"If there is an emergency in a rural area and all one has is the village doctor at their disposal, now through satellite technology a direct link to the general hospital and its specialists are a satellite transmission away," says Holman.

This bridging of rural telephony from remote regions to developed areas has been experienced first hand by many. One such user has a strong relationship with satellite technology and maintains active communications regardless of where in the world he may be. Pasquale Scaturro, vice president of Exploration Specialists International, is not an ordinary geophysicist. He has more than 23 years experience in the domestic and international oil and gas industry and has done extensive and operationally difficult geophysical projects in some of the most remote areas of the world.

"My job means I go into old oil fields to evaluate them, acquire seismic data, and then help rehabilitate them, or I am involved in exploration, which means going out into the middle of nowhere hoping to find places to drill a well," says Scaturro. "In terms of satellite communications, I never go anywhere without a satellite phone terminal, be it either mostly some sort of Inmarsat system or I have even used the Iridium system before."

Scaturro’s work and personal passions–he is an outdoor adventurer at heart–have literally taken him to some of the most remote areas of the world. "I use satellite technology for its reliability–no matter where I am in the world, the communications link works. I have used them so often, in so many locations, that I consider myself an expert and my clients are happy because I am passing data onto them in real-time from wherever. Technology is important to me and being linked is vital for my business. I constantly have to make decisions on how to economize wisely and I have found that satellite, for my rural communication needs, is the answer," he says.

Future Business Remains Strong

And this answer remains golden for satellite executives who continue to develop networks and service offerings in the remote areas of the world. Even though tough economic times may have driven contract prices down for such services, one thing remains certain: satellite linking rural with urban still remains a viable market segment and one where satellite technology will continue be a leader, as more applications come to the light and higher communication needs are warranted from the client.

Nick Mitsis is the editor of Via Satellite magazine

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