The northeastern corner of Arizona, home of the Navajo Reservation, is one of the world’s most desolate spots. Endless miles of sand, rock and scrub are interrupted only briefly by sparse human settlements. Broadband access? High-speed links are about as abundant as flowing water in this rugged desert country. Even the telephone infrastructure has remained largely untouched since lines were first strung in the 1930s and ’40s.
Providing distance-learning support to 110 Navajo chapter houses?reservation community centers?has been an ongoing challenge for Ed Groenhout, vice president of strategic initiatives at Northern Arizona University. The chapter houses, funded by the Navajo Nation, provide a variety of health, education, communication, shopping and other services, including adult training programs. Northern Arizona University’s distance-learning project helps Navajos prepare for jobs in the hospitality industry. “Each chapter house has only one phone line, which is usually reserved for business and emergency purposes,” he says. “Even if the line was available for extended periods, it might not be able to maintain a reliable 28.8K connection, given the existing line conditions.”
In the absence of plentiful and reliable landline links, Groenhout was forced to consider a wireless alternative. But the most popular wireless technology?fixed wireless?wasn’t an option. “In Kansas, you can get a 70-mile circle of coverage with fixed wireless, but not in the mountainous landscape of northern Arizona,” he says. “The only place we could look was up.”
So Northern Arizona University, like many organizations that must provide high-speed Internet access to customers or re-mote employees, turned to two-way satellite technology from StarBand Communica-tions for an immediate solution to its broadband needs. With landline service providers continuing to focus on urban and suburban customers for T1, DSL, cable and other broadband technologies, satellites provide an attractive alternative for the bandwidth starved. “For rural firms, and even some city and suburban businesses, there often isn’t any other choice,” says Gareth Owen, a senior analyst with Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based technology market research company. Gartner expects the number of satellite broadband users to swell to 2.4 million people in North America by 2004, says Owen.
Yet satellite service, despite its growing appeal, is pushing up against some formidable barriers. Combined subscription, equipment and installation costs, for example, remain higher than equivalent landline services. Customers must also deal with a variety of performance-robbing technical issues, including high costs and delayed and obstructed signals. “To say that satellite is the best broadband solution would be misleading,” says Paul Dykewicz, a senior satellite industry analyst with PBI Media, formerly Phillips Business Information, a research and publishing company in Potomac, Md. “But the technology is certainly a lifeline for many organizations that have no alternative.”
Although satellite access services have been available for several years, true two-way broadband performance at an affordable price is a recent development. Very Small Aperture Terminal satellite systems have been providing data links to businesses for more than a decade, but only large companies with hundreds of remote offices could afford to buy in. Until a few months ago, next-generation IP-oriented satellite service providers offered only hybrid satellite-landline services that forced users to rely on snail-pace 56K modems for upstream links. Now, companies such as DirecPC, Pegasus, StarBand and Tachyon are providing true two-way satellite-based broadband services.
Until recently, it wasn’t possible for the satellite companies to compete with terrestrial service providers on a performance footing. That situation is changing, says David Simpson, senior vice president of research and development and engineering for On Command, a Denver-based company that offers interactive entertainment and Internet services for hotels. On Command uses Tachyon’s two-way satellite service to connect facilities in places, such as Key West, Fla., and Branson, Mo., where high-speed terrestrial connections are hard to get. “If we can find a good terrestrial deal, we’ll use it. But if the site is remote and the options are limited, we’ll use satellite,” says Simpson.
Tachyon’s service, which debuted in April 2000, ranges from 128Kbps to 1.544Mbps on the downstream (data flowing to the user) and from 64Kbps to 256Kbps on the upstream (data flowing from the user). StarBand, which began selling its two-way service last November, provides downstream speeds as fast as 500Kbps and upstream rates of up to 150Kbps. DirecPC, which launched its two-way service in December, offers up to 400Kbps on the downstream and 256Kbps upstream. “The speeds compare favorably with cable services and beat most DSL connections,” says Yossi Gal, vice president of engineering and chief engineer for McLean, Va.-based StarBand. “There’s more than enough bandwidth to support high-speed file transfers, media streaming and many other broadband activities.” As with cable connections, however, speeds can slow down considerably during evenings and other peak service times.
To the benefit of its many remote users, however, satellite technology can operate under extremely arduous conditions. Northern Arizona University recently added six StarBand dishes to the floor of the Grand Canyon for use by members of the Havasupi tribe. “These people only have phone service for half the day during the summer because the heat radiating off the canyon walls plays havoc with their [microwave] phone links,” says Groenhout. “But the satellite connections work just fine.”
And despite the need to install dish hardware, many satellite customers appreciate the technology’s reasonably straightforward sign-up and installation process. “The procedure is relatively pain free, particularly when compared with the complications and delays involved with DSL,” says Michael Goodman, a senior satellite industry analyst with The Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research company. Yet, as two-way satellite’s popularity grows, providers are finding themselves swamped with orders, causing some delivery problems.
Down to Earth
While satellite technology is often the only way to get broadband to some locations, cost remains a problem. Pegasus, which offers its two-way service through alliances with satellite operators DirecPC and Tachyon, prices its 400Kbps upstream/128Kbps downstream service at $69 per month (the company is also planning a faster, pricier service from DirecPC that’s scheduled to debut in July). At StarBand, service also costs $69 per month. But that’s more expensive than either cable or DSL. “One also has to consider the substantial hardware and installation costs, which can range up to several hundred dollars,” says Goodman. StarBand’s hardware-installation package is priced at $638. A Tachyon installation, which is geared toward small offices rather than individual PCs, costs $4,950, in addition to between $800 and $1,300 per month for the service itself. The sky-high installation price is the result of expensive electronics and an FCC rule that mandates professional installation of two-way satellite systems, because of the technology’s high-power microwave transmitter. “You can’t just hang a two-way dish in your backyard like a TV dish,” says Jeremy Guralnick, vice president of product management for San Diego-based Tachyon.
Latency is another important issue. Since satellites orbit at 22,300 miles, a signal needs anywhere from one-half to three-quarters of a second to complete the Earth-satellite-Earth round-trip. That’s not a big problem when swapping e-mail, transferring files or casually surfing the Web. But latency pretty much rules out two-way broadband applications such as telephone calls and videoconferencing. “Users find the voice delay confusing and intolerable,” says Goodman.
Satellite technology is also vulnerable to rain-fade?an atmospheric phenomenon that blocks signals during downpours. Rain-fade isn’t a big problem in moisture-challenged places such as Arizona or New Mexico. But in Florida, where cloudbursts occur almost daily at certain times of the year, satellite users can expect occasional service interruptions that range from a few minutes to a half hour or more.
Two-way satellite services use a dish that’s slightly larger than the models used by satellite TV receivers. While mounting a dish on a roof or wall usually isn’t a problem, tall buildings or trees can make it difficult?occasionally impossible?to find a clear signal path. “Satellite service requires an uninterrupted view of the southern sky?nothing less will do,” says StarBand’s Gal. Yet satellite technology can also be surprisingly accommodating. “With the Havasupi installation, we worried that the canyon walls would block the signal path,” says Groenhout. “The installers rode down on mules and discovered, surprisingly, that the signal carried all the way down to the canyon floor.”
Blue Skies or Black Space?
Despite the spread of DSL, cable modems and other broadband technologies, satellite supporters feel that their technology will always be able to compete effectively with landline connections, just as satellite TV broadcasters now contend against cable companies. “The answer will be to offer a high quality service at a competitive price,” says Blair Gilbert, product development manager for Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based Pegasus Communications. “As long as people live or work in remote locations, or desire an alternative to terrestrial connections, there will be a market for satellite services.”
Still other observers aren’t so sure, claiming that two-way satellite service’s future hinges on how long it takes phone and cable companies to bring broadband pipes to businesses and homes. “There will always be some customers without access to terrestrial broadband connections, but that number will steadily dwindle over the next several years,” says Goodman. n