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Satellite Connectivity Can End the Digital Drought

By | April 15, 2020

Viasat provides community Wi-Fi in Mexico. (Screenshot via SSPI.)

The digital economy has become a major driver of total economic growth. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated the combined value of platform companies with a market capitalization over $100 million at more than $7 trillion in 2017 – which is 67% higher than just two years previous. But as of 2020, 41% of the world’s people have never yet connected to the internet, according to InternetWorldStats.com. As writer William Gibson noted, the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.  

The irony is that the satellite industry has, in theory, the ideal solution: connectivity that can reach nearly everywhere on Earth where people live. But neither the physics of packing subscribers onto transponders nor the economics of space communications have ever worked in favor of the world’s unconnected. In recent decades, governments have subsidized internet via satellite project in many nations – but the sustainability hasn’t been there, due to cost and the complexity of installation and maintenance on the remote end.  

That is finally changing, through a combination of technology advances and the right distribution model. The technology advances are the high-throughput technologies in space and ground segments, which are delivering massively greater amounts of bandwidth at significant lower price points. The distribution model goes by the name “community Wi-Fi.”

Connecting Millions in Mexico

In Mexico today, more than 1.8 million people in rural communities can go online, thanks to satellite operator Viasat. In each town or village, Viasat and its local partners install a central Wi-Fi hotspot in a community center such as a town hall or school, connected to a Viasat spacecraft. Viasat’s next-generation satellite network delivers high-speed, high-quality service at affordable prices. People connect on their own devices – and their lives are transformed. 

Email, messaging, phone and video calls, social media, and web-browsing bring new services, education, news, and entertainment. They can reach distant relatives, take classes, apply for jobs, and learn market prices for their products. 

Viasat is working with companies like Facebook to make the internet accessible to people in more rural areas. It is helping Telebras in Brazil connect thousands of schools,  hospitals and other government institutions. Together, they plan to expand connectivity to communities, businesses, homes and aircraft across the country.  

More than a half-million Americans and U.S. businesses subscribe to its broadband service. With the community Wi-Fi program, the company has found a way to deliver service at a price that rural Latin Americans can afford.   

Not Just for the Tropics

The region of Sibera makes up three-quarters of all Russia, but fewer than one in four Russians live there, due to its long, harsh winters. Siberia is vital to the Russian economy, however, because it is rich in gold, diamonds, oil, and coal. 

More than half of Siberians are city dwellers, but the rest live in small towns and villages scattered across the land. Isolation can be harsher than the winter wind. It cuts people off from family and friends. It robs them of access to services, to work, and education. Distance destroys the connections that make a good life.

Hughes Network Systems has equipped thirteen hundred towns and villages across Siberia with its own community Wi-Fi hotspots. Hughes works with Russian communications companies to install satellite terminals and Wi-Fi access points that offer affordable neighborhood service to more than 300,000 people.

For most of them, it’s the first internet connection they have ever had. It brings them public services and online education, work opportunities, and connection to distant family and friends. It makes Siberia part of a vibrant online community circling the globe.

Expanding Access

The current state of High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) in the sky and on the ground is the product of more than 15 years of development. Much is expected of O3b mPower from SES, the next generation of Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) spacecraft. But the technology is new and it remains to be seen whether the economics of orbits like MEO and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), with the demands they put on ground segment, will enable to them ultimately to fulfill the dream of low-cost, ubiquitous, fiber-like connectivity.  

In the meantime, internet via HTS has become to the digital economy what water has always been — the stuff of life, flowing in rivers nearby or drawn up from the hidden streams that flow underground. The “water” of the digital age is the internet and the knowledge, entertainment, commerce, and connection it brings.  

In too much of the world, the digital river has never reached rural towns and villages. Instead of digital streams, they faced a digital drought. But thanks to HTS and community Wi-Fi programs, the flow of the digital river no longer has to bypass rural villages and towns. The digital drought may finally be coming to an end.  


Robert Bell is executive director of Space & Satellite Professionals International.  SSPI produces the Better Satellite World campaign, which dramatizes the immense contributions of space and satellite to life on Earth.  More at www.bettersateliteworld.com.