Learning The Satellite Way

As governments throughout the world make improving education a more important goal, many are beginning to embrace — and help fund — satellite-enabled initiatives. Satellite-related technology has proven to be quite effective in helping governments deliver the same level of education enjoyed by students in urban areas to students in rural locations, and the role of satellites in the education arena likely will continue to grow.

Early successes involving satellites in distance learning should provide encouragement that this trend likely will continue at a strong pace, says David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum. “A few developing nations began large-scale deployments of satellite-based distance learning. China, India and Brazil were among the first, and they reported their successes to their neighbors,” he says. “Word spread to the highest levels of government through inter-governmental dialogues like the World Summit for the Information Society, a program through which heads of state agreed to embrace certain principles  and to achieve tangible results in closing the communications gap.”

Enciclomedia

One of the most ambitious distance learning projects involving satellites is the Enciclomedia project, a federal government project in Mexico intended to provide multimedia content to public primary schools. The network, which mixes satellite-enabled sites with some DSL and cellular coverage, initially consisted of more than 13,000 terminals serving about 37,500 primary school classrooms, and in December, Hughes Network Systems delivered an additional 10,860 broadband satellite terminals intended to serve an additional 17,500 secondary school classrooms in Mexico.

“I think Enciclomedia is extremely innovative in the sense these schools had no communication, no access to Internet, no access to up-to-date texts,” says Nick Marzella, vice president, Latin America, for Hughes. “They can now leapfrog into a more modern education system where online is available to them now. They now have access to up-to-date texts with interactive capabilities on the blackboards. This is something you don’t see even in U.S. schools. It is a tremendous application. It lets them get to all these disparate sites quickly.”

One of the key companies involved in the Enciclomedia project is Pegaso Banda Ancha, an interconnection service provider that provides satellite communication between schools and the monitoring center at the Federal Ministry of Education. “Enciclomedia is in the process of finalizing installation of the software and equipment in nearly 162,000 elementary school classrooms (around 60,000 schools across Mexico),” says Javier Braun Burillo, director general of Pegaso Banda Ancha. “Most of them are already using Enciclomedia and are connected for monitoring purposes and broadband Internet access through different technologies such as satellite. The connectivity is basically used to monitor the utilization of different devices.”

Braun believes that satellite technology can help governments improvement education initiatives. “Satellite is the difference,” he says. “Not only because in many cases it is the only way to be connected in rural and remote areas, but also this project has made this technology affordable for many other governmental entities such as social development,” he says.

In terms of what needs to be done to take the project to the next level, “We want to see the project expand, gain strong political support, improve teacher training, etc.,” says Braun. “Satellite is the most universal of the technologies as its coverage is the most complete. We want to continue to upgrade the Enciclomedia software, incorporating the grades that are still pending, and develop and sell the concept to private schools. We also want to export experience and technology to other countries. We would also like to see this project made available all through the Americas and we want to play a role in promoting its implementation,” he says.

Brazil

The University of Northern Paraná (Unopar) project is another fine showcase for satellites and distance learning. João de Lima Navarro, technology and development director for Unopar, says the program has improved significantly since the 2003 launch of the Connected Presence Distance Learning System. Today, Unopar is installed in 407 cities and has more than 1,500 distance learning classrooms in 25 states in Brazil. “With 109 programs, 1,685 employees and 112,586 students, we have 35 percent of the Brazil’s distance learning market share,” he says.

The project likely will expand, Navarro says. “We are looking for partners to start a South America project based on our technology. Our goal in 2007 is 500 cities, which represent almost 10 percent of Brazil’s cities,” he says.

Like Braun, Navarro believes satellites offer a compelling solution to improve educational standards across the country. “It is undeniable. Satellite is the best way to deliver point-to-multipoint content in a huge area,” Navarro says. “Considering Brazil’s wide geographic reach as well as the difficulty for people to access certain technologies, we see satellite technology as the perfect scenario to implement such a solution. Like Brazil, there are many other countries or regions inside many countries that could need this kind of solution.”

In terms of how the project will move to the next level, “Developing new solutions and keeping the high quality of services in all aspects will be key,” Navarro says. “One of the next steps involves a migration to DVB-S2 [and] achieving something between 30 percent to 40 percent in terms of a bandwidth saving. We also want to develop new features to increase the interaction with all the people related to the learning process.”

With the number of projects likely to increase around the world, the opportunity for VSAT players to capitalize on the market will continue to be strong, says Marzella. “There aren’t any large projects other than government type of initiatives. It appears that the momentum or the example of Brazil and Mexico is getting ready to be spilled over into the surrounding regions,” he says. “I would say there is quite a bit of interest region-wide, and maybe worldwide, in these types of initiatives now.”

China

One of the most intriguing countries where distance learning could make an impact throughout the next few years is China. ChinaCast, formed in 1999, has received a license from the Chinese Ministry of Information and Industry to provide a nationwide satellite broadband service using VSAT equipment provided by Hughes. It did not take long for ChinaCast to realize that the education was potentially a lucrative area for the company.

“After launching our nationwide satellite broadband Internet service in late 2000, we found that there was a lot of demand from the Chinese education sector, which required point-to-multipoint video, voice and data services — a perfect application for satellite,” says Michael Santos, chief marketing officer at ChinaCast. “Upon closer investigation of the market potential, we found out that the China education market was the largest in the world with more than 250 million students, 10 million teachers and more than 600,000 schools and that the government was investing heavily in distance learning. Since the enterprise and consumer broadband internet markets were not yet well developed at that time, the company decided to focus on the education sector from 2001, which helped us achieve profitability by 2002.”

ChinaCast’s two main education business segments are the post-secondary education sector and primary, middle and high schools, says Santos. The education market combined accounts for about 85 percent of ChinaCast’s business. “In the post-secondary space, we provide turnkey distance learning services to over 20 universities in China,” Santos says. “We install the satellite dishes, connect up their campus studios to our satellite hub, uplink their interactive distance learning service over our satellite system, and provide all the applications software and subscriber management systems. We use the HughesNet satellite broadband platform and lease AsiaSat 3S Ku-band transponder service covering China. Right now, we have more than 125,000 university students using our services via our nationwide network.”

What makes ChinaCast different from other distance learning projects is the business model the company has used to make distance learning via satellite a profitable business, says Santos. “We have developed a slightly different business model compared to other satellite broadband operators,” he says. “We actually receive a revenue share in the tuition of each university student. In the [kindergarten-through-12th-grade] sector, what we do is aggregate educational multimedia content and then deliver it via our nationwide satellite broadband network to more than 6,500 schools around the country. We charge a monthly subscription fee for the content and delivery, which is paid by the schools.”

Santos ultimately believes satellites will have an even stronger role in the Chinese education market. “In other parts of the world, governments are now subsidizing broadband satellite services for schools and for rural communities. For instance, the governments of Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia and India have launched projects to subsidize the installation of broadband satellite Internet access to some 50,000 schools,” he says.  The Australian government has a budget of more than $100 million Australian dollars ($78.1 million) to provide broadband Internet services to the country’s rural population and has more than 20,000 locations in place.

“Although this has not yet happened in China, the government is now targeting the rural areas for a major increase in government spending,” Santos says.  “In the meantime, the education sector in China is still the commercial sweet spot for satellite broadband operators. Other satellite broadband services, such as the enterprise sector, have not developed as fast as we had originally thought, and the consumer sector will probably never be a large market in China as it has been in the U.S.”

African Virtual University

Another interesting distance learning projects is taking place in Africa, where the African Virtual University, an intergovernmental organization based in Kenya, is overseeing the Bandwidth Consortium project. About 40 institutions are connected to the network, which was established in 2005.

Sandra Aluoch, information and communications technology manager for African Virtual University, already considers the Bandwidth Consortium project a success within the initial institutions it targeted. “It must be acknowledged and applauded that this is the first time a project of this magnitude, involving several countries, regions and educational and research institutions with different governance and regulatory regimes, has been achieved on the African continent,” she says. “The Bandwidth Consortium has thus not only made this seemingly unattainable goal a reality but setup the criteria for establishing a consortium across the continent.

“Secondly, as the consortium covers several regions, the de facto benefit of this is a regional benchmark for connectivity pricing has been established with a price reduction amongst universities with the increased awareness of fair pricing. In Kenya and Nigeria, users equipped with the pricing models have approached their local providers to renegotiate the pricing on their existing contract and immediate savings were realized.”

While celebrating the success of the project, Aluoch notes that the University learned several lessons that can be applied to future endeavors. “You have to spend more time in the planning phase and include a modest allowance for timing for each and every activity as things always take longer than anticipated,” she says. “This age-old adage could not ring truer, especially when working in Africa, and more specifically when working with universities, as they have very unique governance structures. Contracts have to be reviewed by several members from the administration, procurement, finance, legal, [information and communications technology] departments and even donors, a process that can take two weeks to three months and should be factored into the project plan.”

With only minor issues to overcome so far, Aluoch has become a strong support of satellite technology and the impact it can have on education efforts in developing countries. “Satellites can be used to support development by leveraging the power of telecoms to provide quality education and training programs to students and professionals across Africa,” she says. “This technology not only increases economic development but begins to bridge the digital canyon and builds the research and knowledge economy in Africa. As satellites are able to access landlocked countries and areas that are otherwise inaccessible by fiber, the potential for growth in these and rural communities can be further achieved through satellite technology.”

The Bandwidth Consortium project is scheduled to end in 2008, but Aluoch hopes to continue the effort through more collaboration between the university and other educational institutions throughout the world. “The Bandwidth Consortium is also exploring the potential of establishing physical networks for research collaboration within and across the various continents,” she says. “These collaboration opportunities could provide access to National Research and Educational Networks in Europe and North America and thus increase the level of research and knowledge sharing exponentially.

“We would like to expand this project to institutions that can commit to and are able to purchase at least five megabits per second or more from the consortium,” Aluoch says. “There is a high demand for affordable bandwidth, as connectivity across most of Africa is via satellite and VSATs are — and will continue to be — the most viable option in the short to medium term due to the limited national and international fiber backbone in most parts of Africa,” she says. “As the Bandwidth Consortium comes to exist as a legal entity and universities and research institutions not funded by the Partnership can join and benefit from the reduced pricing for Internet connectivity, the natural progression is the expansion to increase the current membership base thus providing greater bargaining leverage to approach the satellite providers for further price reductions.”

Future VSAT Opportunities

This growth in the distance learning market provides strong opportunities for satellite players, says Marzella. “Our technology has allowed what is a very competitive environment to be able to address these [networks of] tens of thousands of sites in a cost-effective way, because the technology makes the most efficient use of the space segment,” he says. “The satellite portion is a big part of the puzzle.”

Gilat Satellite Networks also is looking to play a strong role in this arena and has ongoing support efforts with the Modern University for the Humanities in Russia, which uses the Gilat SkyEdge VSAT network to provide Internet access, distance learning and video conferencing to 300 branches located throughout the Russian Federation, and with Teleport-Services, which uses the VSAT network to serve businesses and government agencies in remote regions of Eastern Russia where terrestrial connectivity options are either unavailable or unreliable.”

“We can see an increase for demand of these types of projects,” says Gil Meyran, vice president of marketing for Gilat. “Distance learning may not be a new application, but I think as the population grows, we will see more projects — primarily on the commercial side. We expect new networks will use IPTV and movies to provide corporate orientation, sales training and other important functions.”

Satellite technology is a natural choice for applications such as distance learning, but to be successful in the market will require companies to provide more than just equipment, says Meyran.

“I think system integration and turnkey capabilities will be key factors in providing such services,” he says. “Governments are looking for service. They are not just looking at hardware capabilities. We think we have a very efficient platform in terms of space segment and applications. I believe we bring the extra mile to companies, not just in terms of experience and capabilities but also the capability to run projects end to end.”

These successful examples of distance learning projects that use satellite technology will encourage more governments to look at the possibilities involving satellites. While early successes have mostly come in regions like Latin America, other regions of the world are beginning to realize they could benefit more in this area. In some ways, government and industry are only scratching the surface of the benefits that satellites can bring to education. Throughout the next few years, there is a strong opportunity for that potential to be realized, and governments, satellite players and perhaps more crucially, the next generation of students, all will benefit substantially.

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