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One Industry, One Thousand Solutions - And No ‘Digital Divide’

By: David Hartshorn, Secretary General, Global VSAT Forum

Analysts and commentators commonly refer to the yawning gap between the communications “haves” and “have nots” as the Digital Divide, a condition that is increasingly being resolved (yes, resolved) – whether the user is an IT manager in need of an efficient wide-area-network solution or a villager simply seeking to call the nearest city.

The bridge is satellite-based communications. And the traffic moving across that bridge is diverse: corporate services, Internet access, telemedicine, distance learning, disaster recovery, PSTN extension, cellular backhaul… in short, solutions that depend on the reliability, flexibility and affordability of satellite communications.

What makes these solutions possible are a unique tool kit employed by the satellite communications industry. First, a single communications satellite parked 22,300 miles above any region can “see” up to one-third of the world with a single beam, enabling the immediate and cost effective provision of a wide-area, point-to-multipoint private network.

In addition, during the past 15 years the international satellite communications industry has been developing and refining network solutions such that year after year – and despite the rise and fall of telecom-industry stock prices – consistently increasing volumes of so-called Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) have been sold worldwide (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Global TDMA VSAT Shipments and Bookings (Source: COMSYS)

Doing the Math
Practically speaking, this level of deployment means that economies of scale are being realised that enable the cost effective use of such systems and services for a broader range of applications. The most immediate and tangible result of this trend is lower pricing of VSAT terminals (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: 1990-2000 VSAT Terminal Pricing Trends – US$000 (Source: COMSYS)

Clearly, earth station pricing has declined dramatically, opening up the use of VSATs to a wider range of end users. And a VSAT network can be provided through a lease or purchase arrangement with fixed transmission costs, regardless of distance or the number of receiving stations.

As to satellite bandwidth costs, there is more capacity available throughout the world today than at any other time in history. As a global trend, this has exerted downward pressure on bandwidth pricing. Further, savings in the cost of space segment have also been realised through new modulation schemes and efficient coding techniques – which permit digital information to be recovered more efficiently from the satellite.

Operational efficiency? VSATs can be quickly and easily installed anywhere in the world. A network comprises a receive-only or receive/transmit terminal installed at dispersed sites, connected to a hub via satellite using a small antenna (typically 0.6 – 3.8 metres).

As to reliability, VSATs provide high availability and excellent transmission quality. Performance levels are high: Service level agreements typically guarantee 99.9% reliability for data and 99.5% for voice.

VSATs are also flexible, providing a full range of broadband or narrowband services: from IP-based voice, video and data for the multi-national corporate enterprise, to single channel on-demand voice, fax and/or data for rural telephony. Indeed, with the advent of higher functionality and lower costs, VSAT services can now support a broader range of domestic and international communications than ever before.

A snap-shot of typical services includes:

  • Internet Via Satellite
  • Distance Learning
  • Rural Telecommunications
  • Telemedicine
  • Disaster Relief
  • Government Closed User Groups
  • National and Multi-national Networks
  • Broadband Data Communications
  • Multicast VSAT Services
  • Intergovernmental and Corporate Applications
  • PSTN Infrastructure Extension
  • News Distribution Services

Putting Satellites on the Map
Take any one of these applications, and end users have a powerful tool for connectivity. Take all of them in combination, and it becomes apparent how satellites are being used to bridge the “Digital Divide” not only in industrialised nations, but also in emerging economies, which in recent years have been deploying VSAT-based solutions in increasing numbers (See Figure 3).


Figure 3: Terminal Bookings by Region, Not Including Consumer Sales (Source: COMSYS)

Satellites’ ability to provide services are just as strong demographically as they are geographically. The extent to which VSATs can be used to serve a large number of sites in any given network makes them an important tool for providing links in urban, semi-urban or rural contexts.

Corporations throughout the world have already begun to install thousands of rural VSAT sites. In addition, VSATs are being used in highly-populated areas. In many countries the existence of telephones does not necessarily bring reliability and low tolls. VSATs are invaluable in regions where the traditional copper infrastructure is poorly maintained, and are a highly cost-effective means of introducing reliable and robust lines. These connections carry high-rate data with toll-quality voice, enabling operators to deliver first class services.

In each context – rural, semi-urban and urban – VSATs are being used as a means of providing IP-based services. The advantage to end users of such VSAT-based solutions is that vendors can provide an inexpensive, single communications platform serving a nation, an entire region, or the world. Demand for this level of connectivity has enabled VSAT technology to rise from being a niche technology capable of providing a small competitive advantage to professional users to a mainstream IP-based telecommunications service platform.

This is reflected in the increasing use by ISPs of satellites to strengthen their Internet service offerings (See Figure 4). And other emerging IP-based satellite applications are on the rise.


Figure 4: ISP Satellite Users, by Region (Source: DTT Consulting)

The Bigger Picture
Today, individuals and enterprises in all nations have an immediate opportunity to take advantage of satellite-based network solutions. International telecom services are already facilitating the creation of a global economy, where VSAT-based systems are used extensively in the developed nations to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and improve productivity.

Likewise, less developed countries (LDCs) are also turning to VSAT-based solutions which - being distance independent - make it possible to link the providers of raw materials to agents, to shippers, to importers, to retailers and, finally, to consumers in widely-separated geographic areas.

This, in turn, maximizes the economic potential of any given nation. Indeed, the benefits of VSAT-based communications are being realized in every sector of activity, both private and public. From banks and stock exchanges to schools, hospitals, and rural telecenters, VSATs are also being seized upon to elevate economic, educational, and health standards.

In turn, higher economic and social standards attract foreign investment, which creates employment opportunities, which leads to increased exports, which yields stronger hard-currency earnings.

And it is the ability of satellite communications to help nations achieve these vital objectives that ultimately is compelling policy makers to further enable the satellite industry to more effectively satisfy the world’s tremendous appetite for national and international network solutions.

For more information, please contact: David Hartshorn: david.hartshorn@gvf.org



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