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While GAO Fiddles, Wildblue, Hughes Burn Ahead on Broadband

By | May 22, 2006

      There are about 30 million U.S. households currently using broadband, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). However, this news is bringing no joy to the GAO, because “Although the deployment of broadband is widespread, some areas are not served, and it can be costly to serve highly rural areas,” according to the report, “Telecommunications: Broadband Deployment Is Extensive throughout the United States, but It Is Difficult to Assess the Extent of Deployment Gaps in Rural Areas” (GAO-06-426), released May 5.

      Although government programs have had some impact in bringing broadband to rural America, according to the GAO report, deployment gaps remain. The GAO’s explanation for these deployment gaps come as no surprise to anyone knowledgeable about the broadband market. “Areas with low population density and rugged terrain, as well as areas removed from cities, are generally more costly to serve than are densely populated areas and areas with flat terrain.” In addition, “the price of broadband service remains a barrier to adoption for some consumers, although prices have been declining recently.”

      As for recommending remedies to speed rural broadband deployment? The most the GAO would suggest was for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to improve its reporting on residential broadband deployment in order to provide more meaningful data for the GAO to analyze in future. According to the GSO, the FCC balked at this suggestion due to the extra workload such reporting would impose on the broadband providers who file this data; especially the small ones. “As such, we recommend that [the] FCC develop information regarding the degree of cost and burden that would be associated with various options for improving the information available on broadband deployment,” the GAO said. In plain English, the GAO wants the FCC to report on its reporting options, to help the GAO with its reports.

      Commercial Efforts

      While the GAO regurgitates the well-worn and glaringly obvious, commercial broadband satellite providers Wildblue Communications and Hughes Communications Inc. continue their efforts to boost broadband deployment via satellite.

      In Wildblue’s case, AT&T signed a non-exclusive deal with the satellite broadband carrier to distribute Wildblue’s service under the brand name, “AT&T High Speed Internet Access, powered by Wildblue.” Under the deal, AT&T will subcontract satellite broadband to Wildblue, which will provide the equipment, satellite bandwidth, and signal management as it would for any of its customers. In return, Wildblue not only gets access to a giant new customer base, but is blessed by the credibility and brand recognition of the AT&T name.

      “We have been making great strides through our ongoing distribution deal with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and the thousand or so rural satellite dealers who are now selling Wildblue on our behalf,” says Brad Greenwald, Wildblue’s vice president of sales and marketing. “But the sheer clout of AT&T’s marketing muscle combined with the power of its brand can only accelerate our strong growth even further.” Wildblue’s subscriber base stood at 25,000 at the end of 2005, and the company has not yet updated those figures.

      Meanwhile, Hughes Network Systems LLC (HNS) is hoping to cut the cost of satellite broadband through its next-generation HN System platform, which employs DVB-S2 transmission technology and adaptive coding and modulation (ACM). When collectively compared to transmission using older DVB-S technology, the DVB-S2/ACM combination can “improve the link budget by 50 percent to 60 percent, said Dave Rehbehn, senior director of marketing in the international division for HNS. In plain English, the HN System will move data cheaper than its predecessors.

      Of the two, ACM is the application that really catches one’s imagination. The reason is that ACM recognizes that satellite footprints are not consistent in signal strength. Earth stations in the center receive more downlink energy than those on the edge, which means they can use less spectrum power and faster data rates to receive the same information via satellite.

      “With ACM, you can adjust your signal transmissions to reflect this fact, which is why it helps reduce spectrum usage and downlink times,” Rehbehn told Satellite News. “As well, ACM-enabled equipment can automatically alert the hub to adjust downlink modulation and data rates as required.”

      Even so, John Kneuer, acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), believes that satellite-enabled broadband service to rural areas can be executed economically. Kneuer cited developments in the Wi-Fi arena as a viable market for satellite technology, not only for backhaul services but also for economical transmission to those areas where terrestrial services are not built out.

      “We need to continue to make available more spectrum for emerging technologies that will enable the next-generation broadband services for commercial and government use,” Kneuer said during a May 18 Washington Space Business Roundtable Luncheon in Washington, D.C.

      –James Careless

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