Satellite-Based Distance Learning: The 21st Century Solution

By | October 4, 2004 | Feature, Telecom

The global demand for distance learning services and more advanced interactive distance learning (IDL) services continues to grow as rural healthcare, the need to provide a basic educational experience in remote areas and other factors influence the growth curve in this instance.

At the same time, the blending of IP over satellite and DVB means that satellite service and hardware providers have a range of new and attractive if not compelling solutions for private and public sector organizations alike.

The advantages of using IP multicasting for distance learning over DVB are huge. This has been proven time and time again in both traditional academic settings as well as corporate training networks," says Ron Clifton, president and CEO of Ottawa-based International Datacasting (IDC). "IP multicasting is the most flexible and cost-effective way to distribute media-rich content to multiple sites and DVB provides an excellent migration strategy for older BTV and educational TV broadcast networks."

With its new Datacast XD, for example, IDC is attempting to greatly simplify IP multicasting for the end user by including new .NET and XML interfaces and innovative content- on-demand tools along with state-of-the-art forward error correction and encryption.

"Specifically, the multichannel per carrier (MCPC) nature of DVB allows for continuation of existing broadcasts without service interruption, allowing for a controlled migration to multimedia IP-based content," Clifton adds. "These systems are very efficient, and when combined with store-and-forward content distribution, some customers have seen as much as an 85 percent reduction in operating costs."

While the satellite sector has a winning combination available, this does not explain what exactly is driving distance education in many corners of the globe. Jorge Vespoli, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing at California-based Viasat Inc., sees global distance education via satellite accelerating for a number of reasons.

"We have seen activity in Latin America, Africa, Asia, that is, in developing countries in general. Projects sometimes become political tools in much the same way telephony was in the past. There is distant education, and there is simple access to information," says Vespoli. "Many projects are dressed like distance education projects, but in reality, they are simply tools to allow the access to information that can in turn support and help education. Just a little spin on the same, mitigating the ‘digital divide’."

According to Vespoli, the typical satellite-based educational network today relies heavily on IP technology. "Everything is totally IP. Moreover, the main application we have seen is Internet access with content being available in the form of multipurpose Web-based material. Multicasting and video overlay are potential growth paths," says Vespoli.

At IDC, which specializes in hybrid video and data systems, among other things, updating traditional video-only distance learning networks, and Web-based training (WBT) to new, media-rich point-to-multipoint networks is currently a key activity. IDC offers the SFX2100 family of multimedia server appliances an integrated satellite receiver, processor and hard drive enabling media-rich video, browser-based and other content to be locally cached, and, accessible at broadband speeds.

"The SFX2100 features built-in Web server, multimedia player, and multimedia outputs for both streaming and file transfer applications. In addition to local video playout, the SFX2100 can also remulticast locally MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 video on customer LANs to PCs plus to TVs using inexpensive third-party IP-to-video conversion devices such as Hauppauge’s MVP and Amino’s Aminet," says Clifton. "We are also working with industry leaders such as OneTouch IDL systems on integrating their products into the SFX2100."

Remote knowledge centers lie at the heart of a Digital Villages project in Thailand where IDC has partnered with SAT-ED and Shin Satellite/ iPSTAR. Satellite-based broadband content is pushed by IDC’s Datacast XD content management and distribution system along with SFX2100’s DVB satellite multimedia server appliances.

"What you see is a complete end-to-end solution for pushing and controlling content in all remote digital libraries. On one end, there is a central repository ‘learning and content creation center’ from where content is distributed to multiple receiving points (digital libraries)," says Clifton. "Content from the central repository (head-end) is pushed via iPSTAR satellite. The content at each and every remote digital library can be controlled remotely from the center, allowing old files to be replaced, updated, executed and played, either to PC’s or TV."

While much is being said about Wi-Fi these days, and while most of the satellite -based IDL projects probably have wireless LANs as part of their future migration strategy, the education sector relies heavily on wired local links at least for now. "Wired LANs are most common with a potential migration to Wi-Fi. The projects we have seen are based on remote locations with wired multiple PCs as opposed to laptops with wireless access," says Vespoli.

Viasat has been working with Smart Digital Communications Bhd. in Malaysia, to provide high-speed Internet access to more than 1,500 schools using a LinkStar VSAT network. This is fast becoming the largest VSAT network in Malaysia with distance learning as part of the road map. The LinkStar network hub is located in Kuala Lumpur.

Viasat has also worked closely with the Department of Education of Puerto Rico, developing and rolling out a 100-site Distance Learning Satellite Network with Vitacom Inc. acting as the prime contractor and integrator for the network. Each site provides two-way videoconferencing, broadcast-quality video reception, and Internet access. Eighty-five of the sites are designated as "Centros de Innovacion Tecnologica Para la Docencia" (CITeD or centers for technical innovation in teaching), which are geared toward helping teachers get more involved and trained in new forms of teaching.

India And China Pick Up The Pace

This September, a new milestone will be established by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) with launch of its hybrid Ku-band / C-band Edusat satellite, which will be the first satellite devoted entirely to distance learning. The launch will take place at the Satish Dhawa Space Centre at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Edusat will be carried aloft by the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) to its orbital slot at 74 degrees E where Edusat will be co-located with Insat C and Kalpana 1.

It should come as no surprise that the two most populated countries on Earth, India and China, are emerging as the most energetic adopters of satellite-based distance education solutions in the early 21st century. Both are doing so out of necessity, but also because each country sees satellite technology as a key enabler, a tool with a proven track record that can quickly accomplish the task at hand.

Avi Shabtai, Israel-based Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd.’s general manager, China, has as good a vantage point as anyone when it comes to observing what is unfolding in the region as a whole.

"The Central Agricultural Broadcasting Television School (CABTS) was established in 1980. Since that time, it has become one of the largest agriculture distance education schools in the world, with 38 provincial schools, 330 municipal schools, 2,408 county branch schools and 23,000 township classes, employing over 50,000 school staff," says Shabtai. "In 2000, CABTS implemented the China Distance Education Network using computers and Gilat’s two-way SkyBlaster VSATs to link 54 IDL stations to its provincial schools. The network uses a standard star topology (point to multipoint) with the center currently sending and receiving information to and from the 54 sites."

CABTS will soon have its own private network using a Gilat hub, and the amount of remote sites will rise to between 300 and 350, according to Shabtai. Robogroup, formerly Gilat Communications, is supplying Trainet IDL software, which supports inbound and outbound video, and allows the trainees wherever they may be to share information with each other.

"The idea is that trainers in the 300-350 sites will be trained by CABTS teachers in agricultural studies from the CABTS headquarters using the satellite-based network. These trainers will then filter the information to farmers in the other CABTS locations, at this point, using nonsatellite technologies," says Shabtai.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) selected Pleasanton, CA-based Polycom, Inc. for a new satellite IP-based video communications network. This is a first for Polycom in China, which will deploy its solution in 37 regional offices located in 31 provinces and autonomous regions over a H.323 standard network. Polycom is familiar to most readers for its terrestrial videoconferencing systems that run over H.320. Thanks to the Polycom iPower Series, MOA will not only be able to offer rich multimedia presentations via satellite, but it will also be able to take advantage of the low-bandwidth aspects of the new video compression standard, H.264.

Winnipeg-based Novra Technologies Inc. has been contracted by Orient Group Satellite & Network Technology Co., Ltd (OSN), which maintains an uplink in Beijing, to provide Novra’s DVB S75 receivers. OSN, which is a distance education service provider in China, is partnered with over one-third of the 68 universities in China that offer distance education programs authorized by the Minister of Education.

In 1999, OSN installed a satellite network using the Gilat SkyBlaster system. It consists of over 200 two-way sites and about 300 one-way sites across the country. Over 200 of the one-way sites have now been upgraded for DVB-IP multicasting via Novra’s S75 receivers.

"DVB is widely used for the transmission of digital television. Existing teleports require only an incremental cost to become equipped for DVB-IP. So DVB-IP multicasting can often cost-effectively leverage existing installed equipment. Additionally, providing another revenue stream for these existing infrastructures," says Patrick Sheedy, Novra Technologies’ director of business development. "IP multicasting is also mature. I think that most of the evolution going on in IP multicasting is the development and acceptance of new applications."

Novra’s NovraLink solution, for example, offers a basic multicasting platform with forward error correction, addressable receivers, controllable bitrates, and scheduled transmission, along with newer tools wrapped around it for importing and managing the media files, creating the media playout schedules, and managing the network of remote receivers.

Novra has recently signed an agreement to provide a satellite-based NovraLink content distribution system to the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Center (MFNERC). Through this pilot project, MFNERC will distribute educational materials and community interest programming to remote First Nations communities widely scattered across Manitoba.

Reliable And Cost-Effective Distance Educational Tools

Scott Calder, president and CEO of Salt Lake City, UT-based Mainstream Data, is not alone in terms of his reluctance to provide any details regarding the specifics of his company’s existing IDL deployments, due to customer requests. He did indicate that while this article tends to focus more on public sector activities, more and more private sector customers are looking for additional ways to leverage their investment in Mainstream’s VSAT platform.

"Although distance learning may not have been the driving force behind their initial investment decision, customers in the hospitality industry, for example, are increasingly adding interactive distance learning to the many applications for which Mainstream’s two-way satellite platform is used,"says Calder.

"Additional functionality is required for many of the more data-intensive applications like IDL, which is why we use the Viasat LinkStar. Some customers have deployed interactive distance learning programs to improve customer service, while others have been more focused on safety or compliance issues with their training."

Still, the larger distance learning projects involving sophisticated yet cost-effective VSAT networks tend to be public sector undertakings, and they are proliferating at a brisk pace. We are only able to scratch the surface here. One only has to look south to get a good look at both the tempo and scope of this unfolding phenomenon.

In Brazil, for example, the Brazilian Communications Ministry’s GESAC program is making an official governmental concept known as "Digital Inclusion" a reality by providing satellite Internet service to 3,100 remote schools and 100 other sites via Gilat’s Skystar 360 degrees E VSAT. This e-government program on steroids uses a network hub located in Belo Horizonte. Gilat do Brasil, a subsidiary of Gilat Satellite Networks, operates the network.

The e-Mexico National System, for example, has distance learning as a vital part of this ambitious national IT project for Mexico. This Viasat-powered network is up and running through more than 3,000 LinkStar terminals already installed along with a network hub in Mexico City, and a Phase Two tender, which calls for another 2,000 terminals to be deployed. Viasat has been working with its partner, Internet Directo S.A. de C.V., on this project.

Satellite-delivered Internet access from is breaking down educational barriers around the world. As a result, teachers and students will continue to have access to content without limitations.

More advanced IDL and WBT over satellite projects are likely to emerge in the coming months. It is no longer a matter of resources, but simply a matter of vision.

Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor. He also volunteers as a satellite technology and communications advisor to the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

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