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Satellite Services for Remote Communities

By | July 19, 2004

      By Roger Rusch

      For decades, universal communication service has been the dream of government planners.

      The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Development Sector is chartered to collect statistics and to encourage the spread of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to every corner of the world. So far, using satellite communications to fill the void has been impractical because of the high cost. For that reason, satellite service has been a conceptual solution only for the people in remote areas who are in greatest need of communications services.

      Satellites are well-suited to rural services because the transponders onboard fly high above the Earth. Therefore, satellites can relay signals between distant locations and can cover vast areas. Satellites currently provide video and audio broadcasting services to most regions of the world. However, there is no evidence that satellites are able to provide affordable two-way communications services to the entire world.

      The obligations of universal service are overwhelming. During 2002, the reach of ICTs remained low for most of the world’s population. The accompanying Figure 1 shows data for the 10 countries with the largest rural populations. This bar graph also shows the teledensity for each country. (Teledensity is defined as the number of telephone subscribers per 100 for each population.)

      These countries alone have an aggregate population of 3.4 billion, accounting for 56 percent of the people in the world, and a rural population of 2.1 billion. This chart also shows the percentage of Internet subscribers in each nation.

      Ubiquitous Access?

      Many satellite business plans have been built around the principles of ubiquitous access. The need for service to thin-route regions has been clearly identified, but the business assumptions have been flawed. Many of these business plans have made a critical judgment error: They have presumed that satellite service to remote regions can be more expensive than services to urban areas. The reality is just the opposite. Prices for rural satellite services must be lower because the addressable consumer base in these regions has less disposable income for telecommunications services.

      Although satellite solutions have not been successful to date, the situation can be rectified. Early attempts in the 1980s to provide dial-up Internet access were frustrating and awkward. I bought a 1200 BPS Hayes Smartmodem for $600 in 1986 but I was never able to make it work. Data protocols were not standardized, and computer operating systems were not geared to working smoothly with modems or with IP. That situation changed dramatically in the mid-1990s. Modem prices dropped sharply, data rates soared, and universal standards simplified installation.

      Satellite Direct Broadcasting Services (DBS) struggled for 15 years to launch a cost-effective system. DBS now is demonstrating it can capture market share from terrestrial cable service by providing higher-quality programming for lower prices.

      Affordability Issue

      Satellite communication services must be restructured to become more affordable. This goal can be achieved. Steps are underway to improve satellite services and their cost- effectiveness. Two aspects are important: (1) Cost of transmission and (2) Cost of the user terminal.

      Broadband satellite systems should be capable of driving down transmission cost. However, expensive user terminals remain a barrier to entry. An attractive architecture for rural communications access is a combination of a satellite backbone with wireless terrestrial distribution. Similar hybrid systems already are in service.

      Small communities could share a satellite antenna and electronics. Perhaps the satellite facility could be a public utility. Satellite nodes can use the pervasive Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) network electronics that operate in the Instruments and Scientific Measurements (ISM) band at 2.4 GHz. A Wi-Fi router can be purchased today for less than $60, and Wi-Fi computer cards cost less than $30. Although the range of conventional Wi-Fi is limited, use of small antennas costing less than $5 can increase the range to four kilometers.

      Such networks would be superior to terrestrial or handheld mobile satellite services (MSS) because the bandwidth is much greater. Cellular user bandwidth presently is only between 10 Kbps and 16 Kbps. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is a packet-data communications system integrated with the GSM cellular telephone system. GPRS promises data rates from 56 Kbps to 114 Kbps. Handheld MSS data rates are even lower. Iridium provides 2.4 Kbps, and Globalstar delivers 9.6 Kbps. The most powerful mobile satellite system is Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Access Network (BGAN) service that offers data rates ranging from 144 Kbps to 384 Kbps. BGAN is affordable for news services and specialized business applications, but the cost of all current MSS is extremely high for rural users. Figure 2 shows a rough comparison of the data rates and cost per megabyte for several wireless services.

      Hybrid Hopes

      Hybrid systems are capable of offering IP telephony, broadband Internet access and video services.

      A fixed installation typically offers more — and cheaper — solutions for Internet access than a mobile system. A satellite/broadband shared network could provide broadband, telephone and, conceivably, limited local video transmission. Other terrestrial wireless solutions like Microwave Multipoint Distribution Service (MDDS) or Local Multipoint Distribution Service (LMDS) could be used for distribution from the node, but these solutions are more expensive than Wi-Fi at present.

      The satellite industry must work diligently and must use creative thinking to break out of the high-cost, low-performance box. Now is the time to concentrate our innovation on customer-focused solutions.

      Roger Rusch is president of TelAstra Inc. You can contact him at 310/373-1925 or via e-mail at

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