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Distance Education: Making The Grade

By | September 1, 2002

      James Careless

      Despite economic hard times, distance learning via satellite is alive and well. That is the message Via Satellite is hearing from one-way and two-way satellite carriers, equipment manufacturers and distance learning applications providers. Here is what they are doing–and how they are getting ahead–in the post era.

      Old School

      As satellite service providers go, Globecomm Systems (GSI) is one of the distance learning veterans. “In fact Globecomm has been supporting distance learning via broadband satellite since we started Netsat Express in 1995,” says Gary Gomes, Globecomm’s vice president of business development. “We started by providing content into Central and Eastern Europe for the Soros Foundation.” These programs were delivered via the DirecPC platform in this region to back a number of educational initiatives launched by financier George Soros.

      Today, Globecomm has gone one step further, by marketing and distributing distance education itself. Specifically, it has signed deals with Distance Learning Inc. (DLI) and ChildU. Inc., to sell both companies’ Internet-based courses by satellite. In turn, ISPs connected through Globecomm’s satellite backbone can resell these English language and child-based courses to their subscribers.

      The target market is corporate and institutional users. GSI’s SkyBorne content delivery platform enables users to access media rich content in areas with inadequate or non- existent infrastructure.

      “As an end-to-end solutions provider, we saw both the opportunity and the need to make Internet-based content available to our ISP customers around the globe,” says David Hershberg, Globecomm’s chairman and CEO. “Distance learning has become a fixed and highly successful part of the educational system and we are well-positioned, with Internet access and satellite services we already provide, to facilitate the distribution of online content worldwide.”

      John Cervieri, chairman and CEO of DLI, says, “We view Globecomm Systems as a natural partner for our business. They have the experience, infrastructure, and customer base to successfully bring DLI online schools and courses into emerging markets.”

      Beyond online courses, Globecomm continues to serve major business clients such as The Home Depot. In fact, Globecomm has just signed a deal to provide 1,300 Home Depot stores and support sites–to which it already supplies business television/distance learning services–with an integrated content delivery system via satellite.

      “Last year we began a rigorous product line review of satellite service vendors and accepted proposals from 34 companies in the United States and Canada,” says Rob Hallam, vice president of internal communication at The Home Depot. “After reviewing the product lines of these vendors, we felt Globecomm represented the best combination of research and development, operational excellence, and competitive pricing.”

      Keeping Airports Safe

      When it comes to distance learning, International Datacasting Corp. (IDC) has a mission: to help clients get more from their one-way satellite bandwidth.

      “We have a particular niche and expertise in helping customers move from the traditional distance education video-only model, to one that can carry both MPEG-2 video and IP data over the same or much less bandwidth,” explains Diana Cantu, IDC’s director of marketing and communications, and its business distance learning specialist. “This allows our customers to make an orderly transition to multimedia services, using our open standard SuperFlex system and reduce costs at the same time.”

      To be precise, SuperFlex is a multimedia broadband satellite networking system. Based on the DVB standard, SuperFlex can move data at rates ranging from 256 kbps to 45 Mbs. This means that a SuperFlex-based distribution system can use the entire bandwidth of a satellite transponder.

      After being launched in early 1998, IDC’s SuperFlex client was used by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). Since then, the AAAE has used SuperFlex to deliver its Airport News and Training Network (ANTN) Digicast to more than 100 U.S. airports 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

      With Digicast, the AAAE is able to provide touchscreen-controlled training videos to airport employees. For instance, the system not only instructs employees on the right and wrong ways to drive across runways, but also provides them with multiple choice questions to answer as they learn. If the employee pushes the wrong button, the video section repeats itself, then tests them again and again until they get it right.

      Not only does the ANTN Digicast system educate employees, it also compiles their marks for management review, both locally and online through a secure Web site. The result: managers can ensure that the right people have been trained in the right skills, while employees themselves can access the content on their desktop PCs, 24/7.

      To say the least, the AAAE is happy with its distance learning via satellite system. “By switching to multicasting via satellite, our organization was able to do a lot more with a lot less,” says AAAE President Chip Barclay. “We saved money, time, and were able to expand the information and training services we provide to our members. This has been especially important in recent months, when access to accurate and timely information has become more critical than ever.”

      Improving Medical Care In Rural China

      For China’s remote and rural peoples, getting access to quality medical care is a real challenge. That’s because much of China’s remote areas are served by so-called “rural doctors.” These physicians only receive basic medical training before being sent out into the field to help people.

      To improve the situation, China has instituted telemedicine and continuing education via satellite. It’s based on NSI Communications’ SkyIP VSAT terminal– FlexiDAMA terminal option for remote sites when a single IP or serial data connection is required–and content services provided by Firmnet.

      Here’s how it works. SkyIP terminals located at remote medical facilities, such as hospitals and clinics in rural areas, are utilized for high speed and low cost IP communications. Each SkyIP is a gateway of a local LAN at remote sites; the entire network is based on H.323/IP multimedia standard, which supports Voice over IP (VoIP), videoconferencing over IP, email, IP file transfer, Internet access and, most importantly, medical treatment for remote patients in China.

      For telemedicine, SkyIP sends patients’ video images to the physician (usually a specialist) at a medical center connected via terrestrial links to the hub station. This gives the rural doctors access to the medical specialties available in metropolitan centers such as Beijing and Shanghai.

      Meanwhile, for distance learning, these same links are used to connect rural physicians to teachers at China’s major medical centers. In this way, rural doctors can improve their skills without wasting time and money traveling to the city, while leaving their patients untended.

      It’s NSI’s SkyIP technology that makes this project economically possible. FlexiDAMA’s ability to only use bandwidth as needed provides very low operational costs by reducing the required space segment. In addition, supporting the H.323 standard allows for a low cost video terminal at the remote station, further reducing deployment costs. Finally, FlexiDAMA broadband communications’ capability, combined with customer-developed medical data servers, provides access to case studies, medical histories, and scanned X-ray transmissions at a reasonable price.

      “SkyIP’s use of DAMA technology allows Firmnet to utilize a single network for both telemedicine and distance learning applications,” says Ron Mankarious, NSI’s vice president of business development. “The customer realized tremendous cost savings by combining multiple applications.” But that’s not all: by using satellite, China has the opportunity to substantially improve medical care for its one billion citizens.

      Technology On The Right Track

      As one of the world’s leading climate control companies, Trane knows the value of leading-edge technology. In fact, since the invention of Trane Vapor Heating–a revolutionary low-pressure steam-heating product developed in 1913–Trane has stayed out in front of the competition, by staying at the forefront of innovation.

      This is why Trane established its own business television network via satellite in 1994, and why, with the help of Loral Cyberstar, it upgraded to digital in 2001. Today, the Trane Satellite Network serves some 150 commercial sales offices and business units in the United States and Canada. The programming and content is produced by The AVS Group, which has production facilities in La Crosse, WI.

      So what is on “Trane TV”? Well, the major emphasis is on training: keeping employees, salespeople and managers on top of the latest heating and air conditioning trends. The content includes everything from panel discussions to shows produced in Trane factories and customer sites, sent out either as one-way broadcasts or two-way interactive distance learning classes.

      In addition, the Trane Satellite Network helps Trane get its message out to clients. For instance, Trane produces a series of educational programs called “Engineers Newsletter Live.” By watching these programs, customers earn continuing education credits that can enhance their position at work.

      To say the least, Trane is pleased with distance learning by satellite. “Training and communicating via satellite offers a cost-effective method of instantly reaching a widely dispersed audience,” says Tracy Dryden, Trane’s satellite network director. “Valuable training can be shared throughout the entire organization. Resources are leveraged and travel expenses are greatly reduced every time the Trane Satellite Network is used.”

      In fact, the cost per employee per 90 minute program–all expenses included–works out to $35. When you consider that this $35 covers everything from production to distribution and management, that is arguably a small price to pay.

      Start-Up Opportunity

      Kromos Communications is a start-up company. But its satellite technology is based on an engineering legacy; namely SSE Telecom’s iP3 product line. That line was bought by Kromos Technologies, and merged with the company’s own wireless technology portfolio. The result is a new company aimed also at the distance learning market, with the product to make it happen.

      Specifically, that product is the iP3 Gateway. Designed as a carrier-grade integrated terminal for the transport of IP data, Voice-over-IP, video and other multimedia traffic via satellite, “The iP3 is a complete IP Gateway solution,” says Ram Chandran, Kromos’ founder and senior vice president. “The iP3 can be used for any traffic from Ethernet to RF and back, to link WANs, LANs and IP backbones via satellite.”

      That is no easy claim, given the requirements for distance learning via satellite. According to Chandran, these include the use of IP as a data standard, multicasting, built- in TCP acceleration (to cope with TCP/IP throughput degradation over satellite), flexible routing, remote monitoring and control, and prioritized queuing for Voice over IP, video and other multimedia applications.

      “The iP3 is able to fulfill all these needs,” he says. “That’s why our product has already been deployed in Eastern Europe and is being deployed in several African countries to serve clients whose remote sites have no terrestrial voice or data connectivity.”

      A Long History

      Microspace Communications Corp. is a broadcast TV veteran. Founded in 1988, the company now serves more than 300,000 receive sites daily, many belonging to Fortune 500 companies. As well, Microspace’s Velocity audio/video/data service–which is provided over AMC 1 and Telstar 4, can provide addressable service at speeds ranging from 19.2 kbps to 10 Mbps.

      “When it comes to distance learning, we’ve been streaming video and IP to the desktop since 1997,” says Joe Amor, Microspace’s vice-president and general manager. “Among our clients are Morgan Stanley, the INS and the EPA,” adds Greg Hurt, the company’s director of sales.

      Microspace’s continuing success in business television and distance learning points to a very simple truth: in most cases, one way transmission is sufficient for the job. As a result, satellite point-to-multipoint distribution remains the killer application in this sector. “We tried doing what we do over the Internet as a test, but the quality just didn’t work for us,” Amor says.

      In distance learning, quality matters. This is why Duke University installed a direct fiber optic link between its campuses and Microspace’s teleport in Raleigh, NC, so that Duke’s nationwide broadcasts would be uplinked with the highest possible quality. From there, Microspace’s satellite backbone ensures that Duke’s signals remain robust and clear, wherever they are received in the continental United States.

      Quality also explains why the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been using Microspace for several years to digitally deliver content to its remote locations nationwide. Training and policy material is delivered reliably, securely and economically every day.

      As for the future? History shows that the ideas that have remained simple have been the ones that have survived long-term, says Hurt. By sticking to what it knows best–one-way broadcasting–Microspace seems poised for ongoing success.

      It’s All In The Packaging

      You cannot send a letter without an envelope, and you cannot send out distance learning without packaging it one way or another.

      This is where companies like One Touch Systems come in. One Touch specializes in creating the “packaging” for distance learning applications by satellite, wireless, and landline.

      “We are an application that rides across broadband to allow for two-way audio, video, and data,” explains Michael Schenk, One Touch’s vice president of business development. “More importantly, our system doesn’t just allow organizations to deliver interactive communications and learning, but includes tools to measure progress and establish accountability among associates.”

      The heart of the system is the One Touch Presentation Server. Operated by the instructor at the originating site, the Presentation Server provides touchscreen control of a split screen audio, video and graphical window interface. Meanwhile, at the classroom end, students can interact using a video screen and a One Touch interactive touchpad–with microphone built in–or online using their desktop PC.

      The company’s most recent release is One Touch 5. This product integrates live networked classrooms and online PC learning into a single package. It even captures the sessions as they happen, for on-demand replay later on.

      The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) relies on the One Touch KnowledgeSite Classroom system to keep its staff up to date. Launched in 1995 as a cost-saving alternative to traditional classroom learning–which required FAA staff to travel to resident training facilities in Oklahoma City, OK–the FAA’s “Interactive Video Teletraining” (IVT) network serves 59 receive sites nationwide. With this system, the FAA is able to train 70 percent of its staff. As well, they are able to do it cost effectively.

      For instance, for one course, “the entire four-day program was delivered to 318 students at a cost to the taxpayers of only $18 per student,” says Rich Schrum, operations manager for the FAA’s Interactive Video Teletraining unit. “As anyone in training can tell you, that’s pretty good.”

      The FAA is just one of One Touch’s many distance learning customers. Today, its customer list contains many Fortune 500 companies “with the need for more effective delivery of communications and learning across their dispersed workforce,” says Schenk.

      Delivering For Less

      Solving the problem of crime by sticking offenders in prison has one major flaw: some day, they are going to be released. This is why the concept of rehabilitation is so important, and why education is so central to helping inmates succeed after release.

      To help address this problem, the Florida Department of Corrections, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, and the Texas Youth Commission founded the Justice Distance Learning Consortium (JDLC) in 1997. In turn, the JDLC created Safety-Net: a technology-driven distance learning network. Aimed at inmates, Safety-Net delivers classroom programming to 74 facilities in Florida, New York, Texas and Virginia. Combined with online materials, the video delivered via Safety-Net provides inmates and their teachers with the educational support they need to succeed.

      “All we have to do is to check the Program Guide–either online or our own printed copy–to see if a program fits our needs,” says Cherie Gerwych, a teacher at New York’s Industry School. “I am a huge fan of the Safety-Net initiative and generally believe that it should be a significant part of the educational programming offered to our inmates,” adds Michael Pleskovich, assistant warden at Florida’s Lancaster Correctional Institute. “We are putting the signal into our department-wide satellite network system so inmates can watch Safety-Net in the dorms, as well as the classrooms.”

      Clearly, the scope of Safety-Net is huge, while the budget is small. That is why the project is delivering its programming via Echostar, rather than a commercial VSAT system. “We fulfilled the requirements for one of Echostar’s public interest channels,” says Dawn Snedden, Safety-Net’s network manager. “Now we’re providing programming to institutions and alternative schools 24 hours a day. Better yet, all that’s required to receive our curriculum is an $800 Echostar system.” As well, Safety-Net subscribers pay $7,500 annually to access the system, plus $10 per full-time equivalent student.

      Will Safety-Net solve the rehabilitation problem? Not by itself. However, distance learning via satellite is making a difference in inmate education. Economics/social studies teacher Carolyn Weyerts, who teaches at Texas’ San Saba State School, reports a 75 percent increase in her students’ passing rates after using the Safety-Net social studies series, “On Common Ground.” However you cut it, that is good news for inmates and society in general.

      Distance Learning Alive And Well

      As different as each of the above examples are, they collectively point to a few truths about distance learning via satellite.

      First and foremost, pragmatism is key. In other words, satellite distance learning applications must address real market needs, and they must make real business sense, if they are to succeed.

      This is why Microspace continues to do well: company management knows that one-way distance education is sufficient for most clients, and so they package their services accordingly. It is also why Safety-Net has succeeded, because it chose the affordable Echostar platform for its delivery system. Had this program opted for an expensive two-way VSAT system, most of its clients wouldn’t have been able to afford the service.

      Second, the right functionality sells. For instance, One Touch has succeeded in serving the FAA, because One Touch’s distance learning solutions truly meets the FAA’s needs; especially saving money over traditional classroom education.

      Third, forget the vaporware: clients want real solutions that make sense. The reason all the above examples are success stories is because they fulfill customer needs. At the end of the day, this is what matters to clients. They could not care less about hardware, or whether their signals arrive by satellite or landline.

      That is a lesson distance learning providers are heeding, and one that is worth the notice of the entire satellite services industry.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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