SATELLITE INTERNET: ANOTHER PIECE IN THE LAST-MILE BROADBAND PUZZLE.
That statement is no longer true in 2001. The era of satellite Internet access has begun. There is no corner of the continental United States that a satellite-based, high-speed Internet (HSI) service cannot reach. Every consumer in rural America now could receive the Internet up to seven times faster than 56 kbps.
Earlier this year, two companies -- DirecPC and StarBand -- began offering service to residences across America over Ku-band (12 GHz) spectrum near the frequencies where direct broadcast satellite (DBS) carriers offer digital TV service.
Satellite HSI will not be the online technology every consumer chooses. In urban and suburban areas, it will be in a tight competition with digital subscriber line (DSL) providers. Rural areas will be a different story. The ubiquity of satellite service will make it a viable choice for many rural consumers, reaching areas that DSL might not.
The Nuts and Bolts of It
The latest satellite HSI systems allow subscribers to send and receive information using a satellite dish. They improve upon an earlier-introduced DirecPC one-way satellite Internet service that sends signals to the home from the satellite, but receives signals from the subscriber over dial-up lines. Satellite Internet can reach any home with a clear view of the southern sky regardless of the terrain or distance from the Internet provider's office.
DirecPC and StarBand are affiliated with satellite TV program providers DirecTV and EchoStar, respectively. However, the HSI signals bounce off different Ku-band satellites. The 21 x 36-inch DirecPC dish and 24 x 36-inch StarBand dish are somewhat larger than dishes designed to receive TV service only.
A subscriber may choose to receive both Internet and TV from the same HSI dish, which comes pre-configured to send and receive Internet data. The installer must mount one or two additional video down-converters on the satellite arm to enable TV service.
Satellite HSI systems require professional installation, especially when setting up the dish to receive TV and Internet from two different satellites. In addition to the outdoor equipment, the installer sets up an external modern indoors, and ensures that the customer's computer is communicating on the network and with the satellite company's billing system.
The consumer must have a computer with up to 100 megabytes of hard disk space and up to 64 MB of RAM for installations that include all options. The computer must have a Windows 98 or later operating system. Neither DirecPC nor StarBand service currently supports other operating systems. The external modem connects to the PC through a universal serial bus (USB) port.
Like other high-speed Internet services, satellite companies complement emerging home networking technologies. With the onset of "always-on" Internet in the home, software designers envision a future in which a family could network computers or simpler, less costly Web appliances in every room. All of the terminals would connect to a single satellite dish and work independently of each other. Small businesses also could benefit from such small-scale networks.
The StarBand HSI service already has endorsed an Ethernet-based home/small office networking software package called WinProxy, developed by Ositis Software of Pleasanton, Calif. Another software company, Puzzle Systems Corp. of Morgan Hill, Calif., recently introduced a similar system for DirecPC called SatServ 6.
What Consumers Want
All broadband and high-speed Internet services have certain strengths in common. A January 2001 survey of 1,600 high-speed Internet subscribers conducted by the Strategis Group, a research firm in Washington, D.C., identified the strengths that consumers value the most:
Increased speeds compared to dial-up
* DSL speeds vary widely, depending on the type of technology the carrier deploys. A typical residential service will deliver 1 Mbps or less downstream and 200 kbps or less upstream.
* Cable modern speeds tend to be significantly faster, but will drop to slower rates when there is heavy activity on the network.
* Satellite HSI services deliver downstream data in bursts up to 400 kbps, with upstream speeds of as much as 125 kbps. Heavy activity on the network also can affect satellite speeds.
Ability to free a voice telephone line
* By switching from dial-up to DSL, a consumer frees a voice line. The DSL and voice services enter the home through the same line and do not interfere with each other.
* Cable modem services never relied on telephone lines. The cable industry still is having little success offering telephony over its networks together with high-speed Internet.
* Unlike the one-way version of DirecPC, two-way satellite HSI does not require a phone line.
* A computer connected to any packet-switched network does not require time- consuming dial-up protocols to log in. Users are instantly online the second they open their browsers or e-mail programs.
Conversely, each service also has weaknesses. No one high-speed Internet technology appears to be ideal for all rural areas.
DSL and cable modem tend to have a consumer price advantage over satellite, with monthly flat rates of about $40, compared to about $70 a month for two-way satellite Internet service. Due to satellite delay, certain interactive applications, such as online games and IP telephony, do not operate smoothly on current satellite Internet services.
Installation costs and convenience for all of the broadband and high-speed Internet options will benefit from improvements in the future. Currently, none of them, even so-called "self-install" DSL kits, is low-cost or user-friendly.
DSL can be costly to deploy. Last year, the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA) released the results of a DSL cost study requested by NTCA and other rural telco organizations. It estimated there are approximately 1.7 million rural households located beyond 18,000 feet of a telephone central office, which is the current distance limitation for reliable DSL service.
NECA projected the cost of simply upgrading most of those lines (not including the cost of the consumer unit) at $4,121 each. It could cost nearly $10,000 per line to reach about 600,000 extremely remote households, NECA found.
On the other hand, deployment costs for satellite are lower. DirecPC and StarBand deployment costs vary based on several factors, but tend to be considerably below $1,000 per household, regardless of the household's location.
A Multiple-technology Approach
Some areas are better suited for satellite service. In some cases, rural telcos could benefit if their broadband strategies include two forms of high-speed Internet access -- Earth-based and space-based.
Rural telcos have made great strides in conquering DSL's distance limitations. The technique of routing service to rural residents through remote digital loop carriers (DLCs) allows many rural telcos to deliver DSL to thousands of customers.
Here is a generic example of the types of rural DSL projects that are becoming increasingly common: A rural telephone cooperative provides about 10,000 access lines over 10 exchanges covering the most remote parts of the state. Over the telco's entire service area covering thousands of square miles, there are fewer than three subscribers per line mile.
Those rural subscribers demand high-speed Internet service. The cooperative makes the commitment to provide DSL and develops a deployment strategy to reach nearly all subscribers. It plans to connect its central offices to DLCs at remote nodes with fiber optic links, or sometimes using a Tl circuit. Often, the necessary fiber or Tl facilities to reach a certain area do not yet exist, and the cooperative must invest in additional infrastructure. In the end, the cooperative does whatever it takes to extend DSL to dozens of small communities, farms, ranches and mining sites.
And yet, there still are some subscribers the cooperative cannot reach. It decides not to build DSL at one of its exchanges where fewer than 200 homes are too difficult to reach. How do rural telcos face this scenario? The desire and technological planning to roll out high-speed service is there, but sometimes the telco has to make the tough decision: Which customers cannot be served?
A multiple-technology approach may be the only way to reach all subscribers, even for the best-planned DSL strategy. It could be an even more valuable tool for those that have not yet begun planning high-speed service.
Randy Sukow is principal technology editor for the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC). Sukow can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2001|
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