Rural broadband has had network providers scratching their heads for years – but now affordable services are poised for deployment in some of the most remote parts of the world.
'If Cornwall were considered a country, it would be in the top-five most connected nations by the end of 2014,' said Sally Davis, the chief executive officer of BT Wholesale recently, as she announced plans to extend fibre-to-the-premise communications to a large proportion of this picturesque English county.
For people living in most other rural and remote areas around the world, the unfortunate reality is that they will probably have to wait for generations before a fibre-optic line is brought to their door. If they've been lucky enough to live in a country with mandatory universal telecommunications service, dial-up access (at 56 kbit/s) has for years been their only way to connect to the Internet.
There are six access technologies that could provide broadband connectivity to under served areas. So far, each of them has been deemed impractical for widespread rural adoption for one reason or another.
A quick look at the table on p64 indicates that satellite broadband stands out from the rest because its uptake has not been constrained by service providers being unable (or unwilling) to deploy a network, but by end users unconvinced about its merits - despite its availability.
From a network architecture point of view, theoretically all an Internet service provider would need to offer near-global broadband coverage would be three geostationary satellites and a few earth stations. More realistically, just one geostationary satellite would be enough to cover a continent.
Indeed, a small group of operators has been using this approach to offer satellite-based, fixed broadband access for some time. In Europe, for example, Eutelsat launched a service in 2007 (called Tooway) that is now available to practically every rural community in 26 countries from Spain to Russia and from Estonia to Cyprus.
In the Asia Pacific region, IPSTAR claims to have sold nearly 250,000 user terminals for its fixed satellite broadband service. In North America operators such as Hughes Network Systems, WildBlue (now part of ViaSat) and Telesat Canada have managed to sign up around a million subscribers between them - by far the most successful satellite broadband region thus far.
When talking about rural satellite broadband, it's important to distinguish between the services offered by these companies and those offered by global mobile satellite operators.
Companies such as Inmarsat, Iridium and GlobalStar could be used by rural and remote residents in most countries to access the Internet. However, unlike the oil and gas, maritime, mining, polar and mountaineering users for whom these portable services have been designed, rural dwellers would find the cost and the speed (with the possible exception of Inmarsat's most advanced constellation) unacceptable for regular use.
Compared with the DSL and cable broadband services typically available to urban consumers, even the satellite broadband services designed with rural users in mind are still more expensive and slower. While this digital gap won't be closed for the foreseeable future, it's about to get a whole lot narrower.
Using a new generation of satellites, operators are gearing up to roll out broadband services that will seriously rival - both in terms of performance and price - existing offerings from DSL and cable ISPs.
The most powerful of those satellites will be ViaSat-1, which Space Systems/Loral is currently building in the US. 'ViaSat-1 seems astronomically different from what exists today,' says Thomas Moore, president of WildBlue and the man leading the development of the new satellite.
'If you look at our existing network, we have two operational satellites with a combined capacity of about 11Gbit/s that are serving some 400,000 subscribers. ViaSat-1 will have 130Gbit/s of capacity, so that's ten times bigger than our total network today.'
The advanced spacecraft will enable the operator to quadruple the data throughput of its existing broadband packages while keeping prices unchanged. 'Today we have three different services that we offer nationwide: a 512kbit/s, a 1Mbit/s and a 1.5Mbit/s service, and we typically retail those anywhere from $49 to $79 a month,' says Moore.
Starting next year, when ViaSat-1 is due to launch, rural subscribers anywhere in the US and Hawaii will be able to get a basic broadband package offering 2Mbit/s for under $50, while speeds of between 8Mbit/s and 10Mbit/s will be available for less than $80.
The second most powerful of these geostationary satellites will be KA-SAT, which Paris-based Eutelsat will be launching by the end of 2010 or early 2011. From an orbital position that will allow for coverage over Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa, KA-SAT's total throughput will be 70Gbit/s.
Eutelsat will use the extra bandwidth to enhance its Tooway service. According to the operator, this will allow one million rural households and businesses to enjoy broadband access with comparable bandwidth and prices to existing ADSL2 lines.
A third such satellite, serving western, central and eastern Europe, will be operated by UK-based satellite company Avanti Communications. Hylas 1 should be operational next year. In 2012, Hughes Network Systems will launch Jupiter, a satellite that will put more capacity in space than is currently available from all the world's broadband satellites combined.
Ka-band on the run
Gregory Peckover, director of satellite communications at Euroconsult North America, says such significantly enhanced performance and competitive prices can be explained by improvements in both the space and the ground segments: 'The biggest thing that has happened is that there has been a shift in the frequency bands that have been used to Ka-band.'
The analyst says the main reason for this shift is that, while the C-band and Ku-band used by broadcasters, VSAT [very small aperture terminal] users and other satellite services are suffering from traffic congestion, there are large blocks of unused capacity in the Ka-band. Moving to that portion of the RF spectrum has opened up several gigahertz of bandwidth for satellite broadband services.
'The other reason Ka-band is very useful is that it can be used with very narrow beam technology,' says Peckover. 'This allows you to create multiple beams and, this way, reuse the frequencies over and over again.'
It's essentially the same trick that mobile phone operators use in their networks to make the most of their frequency allocations - only instead of groups of base stations repeating the same fixed set of frequency combinations throughout a region or country, frequency reuse is performed by dozens of spot beams covering entire continents. 'This has had a huge impact on the amount of added capacity that can be delivered by an individual satellite,' says Peckover.
Meanwhile on the ground, much progress has been made during the last few years in reducing both the cost and the size of the equipment needed to receive fixed satellite broadband. 'We are now talking about units that - including the dish antenna, the RF amplifiers and the indoor device where the processor and the modem is - can retail at less than $300,' according to Peckover.
While this is still more expensive than DSL or cable modems, it's significantly more affordable than the $1,000 or more that equivalent satellite broadband hardware cost a few years ago.
Another advantage of transmitting in the Ka-band is that satellite dishes as small as 60cm in diameter can now be used for two-way communications. 'That used to be a profile dish that was only good enough for one-way, TV reception transmissions,' says Peckover.
Indoor equipment has shrunk, too, with the latest satellite broadband modems not differing much in their looks from their cable and DSL counterparts.
Even equipment that customers can install for themselves has recently gone on sale. 'It is now feasible for an individual - even a consumer - to go to an electronics store, buy a satellite broadband terminal, bring it home and install it themselves,' says Peckover.
'It's not 100 per cent foolproof and people still do pay for professional installation. But because the size and complexity of the gear has been reduced, the overall cost of provisioning service has reduced significantly. This has allowed operators to offer services for $50, $40 or even less per month.'
The other three billion
The Internet has yet to reach 10 per cent of the African population. 'It's a very small amount and it's because of the cost,' says Greg Wyler, an American entrepreneur who, after spending a lot of time in Africa working in telecommunications, came up with an interesting idea to help bridge the broadband gap between developed and developing countries.
Wyler realised that, 'no matter how high the quality of a network you can build on the ground in Africa (and by that I mean from the city to the end user via access technologies such as LTE, HSPA or 3G), there is no link between the city and the global fibre network. So you could get connectivity between your home and the central office of a telecom provider. But getting connectivity from that telecom provider in Africa back to London is a real struggle.'
The entrepreneur has found a way to solve this problem from space. Hopeful that his idea will help bring high-speed Internet access to 'the other 3 billion', he founded O3b Networks. Backed by satellite operator SES, Google, Liberty Global and HSBC, O3b is building the world's first constellation of medium earth-orbit satellites.
The fleet, which will initially consist of eight spacecraft, will operate on the Ka-band and incorporate multi-spot beams. Flying at a much lower altitude than geostationary satellites (thus cutting round-trip data transmission times from over 500ms to about 100ms), the setup will create an unprecedented amount of affordable capacity.
This will be used to link the global fibre Internet backbone to local access infrastructure in more than 150 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The satellites will 'backhaul' two-way data to a multitude of mostly cellular and WiMax base stations, which local telcos and ISPs will use to offer telephony and broadband.
In Pakistan, a network operator called Pak Datacom has signed a multi-year agreement to become the nation's exclusive O3b distributor. In the South Pacific, a single satellite beam will instantly turn all 15,000 citizens and 100,000 annual visitors to the Cook Islands into potential broadband customers of Telecom Cook Islands.
In Nigeria, Netcom Africa will be taking advantage of O3b's network architecture to provide broadband access to ships and offshore platforms operating anywhere in the country. It seems that the problem of rural broadband access, which was difficult to tackle when working in two dimensions, may now find a solution by moving into three.