Will satellite bridge the digital divide?

Blog, Commentary, Information Technology, Roland Renner, Rural

The digital divide refers to the inability of a part of the population to access computers, digital media, and services available through broadband or high-speed internet.  Society is divided into those who do have access to digital communications technology and those who don’t.  Those on the wrong end of the digital divide have less access to opportunity both in their working and personal lives.  A key facet of the digital divide has been the inability to deliver high-speed internet service to rural and remote Canadians.

The only way to get internet services to many rural and remote Canadians has been via satellite.  Earlier satellite services could deliver voice service or direct to home television to remote areas but they were not designed to provide broadband internet access.  As a result, they have been able to provide only low speed service at high costs.  Satellites have been used for point to multipoint broadcast distribution applications and high availability point to point fibre back up.  Viasat 1, and Hughes /EchoStar are first generation Smart Satellites that have additional capability to manage large numbers of internet access customers sharing and competing for limited capacity.

Xplornet claims that with this technology they now have the solution to providing broadband internet access to rural and remote Canadians.  With the successful launch of Echostar XVII, Xplornet will add to its existing satellite capacity on ViaSat 1, launched last October, providing speeds of up to 3 Mbps for $50 per month and higher speed options up to 25 Mbps.  This will be an important improvement to the internet access service available to many rural and remote Canadians.  You can find more about Xplornet services on the new satellites in a recent Globe and Mail story at the following link:


While Xplornet is promoting its services to customers and policy developers alike, we need to keep in mind some important limitations of the satellite solution that haven’t been mentioned in the Globe and Mail story.

Satellites require huge up front capital costs.  They take three years to build and are in service for up to fifteen years. In the case of smart satellites like ViaSat 1 and Echostar XVII, the build time and life span is more critical because the on board equipment has to stay working and compatible with evolving technology.  This is an important limitation compared to fibre optic technology where electronics can be, and typically is, replaced much more frequently.

Satellite is a shared resource, which means that managing contention for access among users is critical for service quality especially as the volume of traffic increases.   Bandwidth caps make viewing of over the top video, rich media, and movies expensive, while download speeds are only just barely good enough for video at the more popular price points. Live IPTV especially in High Definition could be cost prohibitive. Acceptable use policies are another factor to watch, to see if they limit the functionality of the service in ways that don’t apply to terrestrial technologies.

There are two other issues that affect satellite systems.  At higher frequencies, service interruptions can sometimes occur due to snow and rain.  Secondly, there is satellite delay, the time it takes a signal to go up to the geostationary orbit and back down again.  This isn’t a problem for some applications, but it is an issue for many interactive ones like video gaming.  In some cases, people get used to it, but in other cases software in applications is not designed to deal with delay and they simply won’t work.

Finally, much faster speeds, 1 Gbps in the Kansas City Google deployment, are being made available through fibre to the home and intermediate technologies in more populated areas.  Again, many applications and systems are built for these much faster speeds and they will not work in a satellite environment without proper acceleration adjustments.

All in all, this is still very good news.  For many people, this service is a vast improvement in terms of both price and speed from what was available before.  But is it the ultimate solution to the digital divide.  Unfortunately not.