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INSIGHT: Europeans, Satellites + The Digital Divide
by Louis Zacharilla

In mid-August an event took place in steamy Taiwan which may be a precursor for things to come in the world of broadband in Europe. During that week, the nation’s newly-elected president, Ma Ying-Jeou gathered experts on broadband from around the world. However, he did not bring them to Taipei, the typical site for these types of events. Rather, the event was held in Taoyuan County. This atypical location was not so unusual to those involved with broadband policy, issues of community access to broadband and the emergence of what the New York think tank Intelligent Community Forum refers to as, “the Broadband Economy.”

President Ma gathered experts from as far away as Scotland, Canada, and elsewhere who have success in using broadband to stimulate economic growth to have a national advisory dialogue on a broadband future for the rest of Taiwan. His agenda paralleled a concern that persists worldwide: what to do about the underserved regions of the world. “Underserved” in this instance means those with unacceptably low levels of access to broadband or even basic telecommunications. From a business perspective these regions offer increasingly appealing potential and, if they are to realize it, must find a way to not only receive broadband, but to harness it to economic and social development. While access is only the beginning toward becoming an intelligent community, it is where many communities continue to be impeded.

Broadband is not a new topic for President Ma or for Taipei. As Mayor of Taipei in 1996, he set the city on course to become a massive user of broadband in support of the nation’s robust technology, manufacturing industry and its breathtaking numbers of research parks. His strategy called for a ubiquitous infrastructure which would underpin both economic expansion and a lifestyle that would allow the citizens of Taipei to enjoy an enhanced quality of life. By 2006, Taipei had been named the world’s Intelligent Community. Mayor Ma became President Ma two years later.

During the recent conference the new president set goals that were more ambitious. This time, the goal was not simply to understand how the nation’s largest city could implement broadband and further its broadband strategy. Rather, it was to determine ways in which the entire nation could become an “intelligent island” with broadband at its core. An “intelligent island” is one that offers broadband cheaply and ubiquitously, supports a growing culture of knowledge workers who rely on faster and faster speeds, and successfully attacks the digital divide. Combining fiber, satellite, WiFi or other systems, the goal is to provide access to more people and to create more international markets. This in turn creates more opportunities for telecom-related applications and services.

Digital Divide Issues in Europe
In Europe the digital divide is top-of-mind for most leaders of EU communities and governments. While there may be no grand strategy, such as the one seen in Taiwan and, increasingly, in places such as Ontario, Canada and Australia, there is movement, along with a growing sense that broadband via satellite has begun to address the issue of the digital divide and offers substantive approaches from the commercial sector. The issue of a digital divide is not new to Europe. While it has not been positioned as an opportunity, the risks have been well-documented. As far back as 1999, the United Nation’s Development Programme squarely addressed the risks associated with the exclusion of access when it reported that “(the) Internet poses severe problems of access and exclusion. With communications technologies playing increasingly vital roles in economic development, education, health care and governance, the exclusion of those who are poor, illiterate, rural or non-English speaking has broad ramifications. We are profoundly concerned at the deepening maldistribution of access, resources and opportunities in the information and communication field. The information and technology gap and related inequities between industrialized and developing nations are widening: a new type of poverty — information poverty – looms.”

This concern remains perfectly-suited to a satellite-based solution. Covering wide areas of turf and delivering information to remote – or poorly-serviced communities - speaks directly to the unique advantages of satellite. The caveat, as always, is finding the right blend of services and pricing to enable a truly scalable business model for each economic sector. Traditional thinking may not carry the day. Fortunately, satellite companies such as Skylogic in Europe, Wildblue in North America and Shin Satellite in Asia are probing underserved broadband communities via satellite using different approaches. What is consistent among these companies is their strategic understanding of the needs of communities.

In Skylogic’s case, this means the communities of Europe. Last October this Eutelsat subsidiary announced that it would bring “full broadband amenities” to 120 communities in the region of Sargossa in Spain. Following a competitive tender, Skylogic’s D-STAR service was selected as part of an extensive regional broadband program called Zaragoza Internet Provincal (ZIP). Sargossa thus became Spain’s first region to initiate a universal broadband program which used access technologies that include satellite. Each town hall is equipped with a D-STAR two-way broadband system which consists of a 96cm antenna and an indoor device the size of a DVD player. According to Eutelsat, the terminals also connected to WiFi hot spots in several villages to extend Internet connectivity.

Juan Antonio Sanchez Quero, Manager of New Technologies in Zargoza, says, “The D-STAR technology enables us to have universal broadband, without discriminating (or excluding) citizens in rural environments.” It is a necessary first step and it mirrors the vision of people like President Ma in Taiwan, who identify the relationship between broadband and social and economic development a key ingredient for economic success.

Still smaller, governmental or non-profit groups continue to lead the dialogue and push the issue. However, in 2008, it appears that the satellite industry has found its voice on the subject. It has begun to invest in what promises to be a new era of “infrastructure building.” Certainly the announcement of ViaSat’s new satellite has people focused on the potential of satellites to bring the entire world across the digital divide.

According to ViaSat’s Senior Vice President and head of the recently announced ViaSat-1 Ka-band broadband satellite initiative, satellite technology must begin readjust in important ways.

“For satellites to continue to be relevant to the unserved or underserved market for broadband,” says Tom Moore, “satellite technology has to evolve at the same rate as terrestrial broadband grows. In other words, our industry must grow capacity an order of magnitude every seven or eight years.”

Can it be done? “Human nature is such that you tend to believe things cannot be done until you see them being done, and then you find ways to do it.” Moore added. He should know. Mr. Moore was one of two founders of WildBlue Communications, a North American-based provider of broadband services for rural populations. WildBlue was never going to work. Today it has approximately 400,000 subscribers.

While Europe may be slower than other parts of the world to take up the call to consider broadband an essential infrastructure, and satellite a means of serving the underserved, the satellite industry has clearly begun to step-in and fill the access gaps.

Another European based initiative which has identified broadband satellite as a key enabler for broadband community networks is England’s Avanti. At last report Avanti plans to launch its Hylas bird in 2009 and offer a service for broadband community network.

Can satellites help Europe achieve important social and economic goals? Why not, says Intelligent Community Forum Chairman and Co-Founder, John G. Jung. “It is interesting to note that European companies and policy-makers have been rather slow to realize that every community has opportunities to use broadband for economic, social and political development. European governments tend to have a compassionate role in enabling citizens. But in this area, they were for a long while probing for a good solution. Satellite can be a very efficient way to get them to that point,” says Jung.

Jung, who was invited by President Ma to provide the keynote address for the Intelligent Taiwan vision in August added, “Small and medium-sized companies have been, on a global basis, the primary producers of job growth. They now have trade opportunities on a global scale that were once reserved for multinational firms. When geography is no longer an obstacle, then any community in Europe or elsewhere can move into the 21st Century economy and do well. It is an exciting time.”

If it takes a fixed service satellite to get communities and businesses there, it seems they are now available for the task.

About the author
Louis A. Zacharilla is Director Development for the Society of Satellite Professionals International, where he serves as strategist and spokesperson for the international society. He oversees SSPI’s corporate underwriting program and serves as liaison between the Society and its corporate underwriters. Mr. Zacharilla also assists with the formation of new international chapters for the Society.

He is a frequent moderator, speaker and writer on matters related to the value of satellite communications. Mr. Zacharilla has written numerous articles for trade and business publications, appears on television worldwide and is the co-author of a book on business-to-business marketing (B2B Without the BS).

He began his career as an advertising executive in New York, where he served on the team that developed the United States Army’s now-famous “Be All You Can Be” campaign — the longest-running advertising program in the history of American advertising. He also worked on the 1984 Olympics Games, held in Sarajevo, in the area of PR and sponsorship development. He was an adjunct professor of Marketing and the Media at New York’s Fordham University, is a guest lecturer at Polytechnic University’s Distinguished Speakers Series and holds a Masters Degree in English Literature from the University of Notre Dame (USA).

Mr. Zacharilla also serves as a senior manager and the Director of Development for World Teleport Association, another industry trade association. Contact Louis at Lzacharilla@sspi.org