Friday, May 6, 2011

Satellite Internet Service: Amazing technology but not broadband (and why that matters more and more)

A new report on satellite Internet service has just been published by the Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance, or RuMBA (clever name, huh!). This free whitepaper, full of table, illustrations, and extensive references, is worth reading if you are:
  1. A nerd or geek like me
  2. Ever wondered how this satellite Internet thing worked
  3. Have an interest in computer security
  4. Live in a rural area
  5. Care about the future of rural America
  6. All of the above
Disclaimer: I wrote this paper (all 22 pages of it) in my spare time, as a way to help rural communities like the one in which I live. So there is an agenda in my plugging this white paper, but no financial incentive. RuMBA is a not-for-profit group (and for the moment I'm a fairly unprofitable person).

As I say in the paper, the fact that satellite Internet service works at all is a major technological achievement. I just have a problem with the idea that satellite Internet service is being touted in some quarters as a way to provide rural communities with access to broadband.

I don't want to give anything away, because I really do want people to read this paper, but satellite Internet is not and can never be a substitute for proper broadband service. By "proper broadband service" I mean something that can support a data center or at least deliver a high-availability, low-latency, uncapped connection at speeds of more than 10Mbps.


Satellite might have a role to play as the connection of last resort for people living in truly remote areas far from paved roads and other infrastructure, but I see no good reason why homes and businesses that already have telephone service should not also have broadband connectivity. For example, it makes no sense to me that a village on a state highway less than 50 miles from the capital of New York should not have broadband, especially when it is just a few miles from the nearest broadband connection point and already has a fiber optic cable running right through it. And there are hundreds of examples like this.

As a technologist who also pays taxes I am also very concerned that the federal government has seen fit to give tens of millions of dollars of broadband stimulus money to satellite companies who clearly, according to the definitive and categorical conclusions of this 22-page report, do not deliver broadband.

If you agree with me that broadband access is important for farming families and the people who live in rural areas to support them (doctors, nurses, teachers, merchants, and so on) then please bear in mind that things are only going to get worse if we don't act now to deliver genuine broadband to these folks. Every metric out there points to a coming boom in Internet video and other rick media as a way of interacting with consumers, businesses, schools, and healthcare providers. If communities are hurting right now because they only have dialup or satellite, and I believe they are, there are really going to be hurting a year or two from now.

For example, a Cisco report last October indicated that the average traffic over a broadband connection increased 31% in the previous 12 months, generating 14.9 gigabytes of Internet traffic a month. If that trend continues, and a recovering economy strongly suggests it will, the average traffic number will reach 20 gigabytes a month by the end of this year, way more than most satellite Internet users are allowed (without substantial added cost or inconvenience).

BTW, there is a lot of information on this subject over at the Rural Mobile and Broadband Alliance website. I encourage you to check it out. You may also want to follow RuMBA's founder @HandemRuMBA on Twitter and tune in to the Rural America Radio Show on Blog Talk Radio

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