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Common Ground: Satellite Services: Slow And Steady Evolution

By | December 1, 2001

      by Richard DalBello

      Everyone is worrying about the digital divide. About the information “haves” and “have-nots,” and about a great raging river called “broadband” that could widen the gap between those two distant tribes.

      Well, almost everyone. The satellite industry isn’t particularly worried–it has simply been very busy. Broadband is nothing new for satellites. Satellites were broadband before “broadband” was cool. Satellites were “broadband” when the Internet was still in short pants. Why, satellites were broadband when “broadband” was still an adjective.

      While policymakers and regulators sit with furrowed brows and contemplate the challenges of national broadband access, the satellite industry has been diligently implementing spectrum efficient technologies for delivering affordable broadband access and entertainment to everyone, everywhere, right now.

      Today, two companies are able to provide high-speed Internet access via satellite: Direcway and Starband. Both providers have speeds equivalent to current cable modem and DSL services at a comparable price for residential service. Direcway, which is video convergent (i.e., both services can operate with one dish receiver) with DirecTV entertainment services, is available now; Starband, which is video convergent with Dish Network, plans to launch service later this year. Next year, Wildblue and Hughes Spaceway are expected to hit the broadband marketplace with long-awaited Ka-band systems that will offer even faster service at prices comparable to terrestrial alternatives.

      So how have these simple facts escaped the attention of our policymakers and regulators? For one thing, satellites are still considered complicated, expensive and a little bit mysterious. A previous and otherwise insightful NTIA administrator, when presented with the notion that satellite spectrum should be protected so that satellites could offer true competition to cable monopolies, dismissed satellite television with a wave of his hand as “toys for the wealthy.” A characterization that would come, no doubt, as a surprise to the more than 16 million homes and 42 million average American viewers currently enjoying satellite TV. Particularly since more than 7.5 million of these homes and 19.5 million of these viewers are in rural or underserved areas of America.

      True, the consumer-focus of recent satellite ventures is a relatively new thing. In the past, satellite systems tended to be more the province of the “business-to-business” world of private networks and telecom companies. As a result, many policymakers do not realize the role that satellite can play in serving the consumer. Recent congressional legislation designed to encourage the roll-out of broadband services to rural and remote regions has tended to concentrate on systems already serving the consumer, even though these would require a major investment in terrestrial infrastructure. In many cases, these systems are the least efficient means of serving rural areas and the ones least likely to be developed, even with a generous federal subsidy. Terrestrial wireline and terrestrial wireless service providers have historically focused their deployment on high-density urban areas and have avoided rural America. Large portions of the United States are not currently, and may never be, served by either cable or DSL due to the cost of wiring those remote areas, or because of technical limitations due to distance from the telephone company’s central office.

      Nor is Congress alone in its lack of appreciation of the current and future strengths of satellite technology. Recently, the Bush administration held a senior-level, multi- agency forum to discuss broadband issues with U.S. industry. When the first round of participants was announced, the satellite industry wasn’t even on the guest list.

      The satellite industry simply has not done a very good job of explaining the important role that it will play in making high-speed Internet services available to all U.S. citizens. Just as the satellite industry has brought multi-channel television services to the least densely populated areas of the United States, it has the potential to be a leading supplier of broadband services in both urban and rural areas. Satellite technology does not require access to the local telephone exchange or laying cable in low-density areas. By targeting a satellite beam toward a particular region of the United States, satellite-based services can reach every square mile of that terrain, even the most isolated areas. Advanced broadband telecommunications services via satellite are the only practical near-term alternative for reaching those rural and underserved areas of the United States. Only satellite systems offer instantaneous deployment to low-population and low-income areas that may not have enough demand to motivate a terrestrial buildout. The new Ka-band satellite services will offer high-speed Internet access at prices that are not based on distance.

      We in the satellite industry have watched the slow and steady evolution of the Ka-band services from the first tentative steps taken by the NASA ACTS program in the 1980s to the mass consumer markets that are the targets of today’s business ventures. It is unreasonable for us to assume that our partners in Congress and the administration have followed these developments with the same breathless anticipation. We must take the time to demonstrate the power and flexibility of these new technologies to those individuals who are charged with planning our nation’s broadband future. The hard work has been done, now we must demonstrate the ease with which satellite broadband systems can play an essential role in closing the “digital divide.”

      Richard DalBello is the executive director of the Satellite Industry Association. His email is

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