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Issue 5: Current Developments

The Digital Divide - An Appalachian Ohio Perspective

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III. Satellites in the Digital Divide

A satellite connection remains the only available means for broadband Internet connection for many rural Americans. Digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modem networks offer superior cost and performance to known Internet satellite configurations and would be preferable if available. Current satellite Internet solutions appear to provide a competent value and are being adopted by U.S. customers at twice the rate of broadband service in general. Pew reports that there are 1.4 million wireless or satellite subscribers representing 4% of U.S. Internet users.

Internet service is provided over Ku-band transponders on the following satellites that cover North America:

Position Satellite Service Provider # Transponders
91.0 W Galaxy 11 DirecWay (Hughes) 4
91.0 W Nimiq 1 DirecPC Canada 1
95.1 W Galaxy 3C DirecWay 4
99.0 W Galaxy 4R DirecWay 5
107.3 W Anik F1 Verestar (Telesat) 1
101.0 W AMC-4 Tachyon  
116.8 W SatMex 5 DirecWay, others 7, 2
129.0 W Telstar 7 StarBand 2

Source: Lyngemark Satellite, www.lyngsat.com, accessed July, 2003

Operators often engage resellers or partners whose scope of effort may range from re-branding to operations. Regulations dictate that installations with transmitters be performed by certified technicians; national firms such as installs.com are engaged by satellite firms to perform installations and are dispatched to rural areas as needed.

Service offerings vary by operator but generally fall into the following classes:

  • Inroute via dialup modem ("telco return")
  • Single workstation, satellite inroute at 64 or 128 kbps
  • Ethernet LAN workgroup, satellite inroute at 128 or 256 kbps

Hughes Network Services, designer of DirecWay, provides a network utilizing the Internet Protocol (IP), over which both TCP and UDP transport services may be used; this is much like a traditional, terrestrial Internet service provider (ISP). For the consumer-class service, Hughes supplies the Internet gateway and provides IP address assignment, routing, domain name resolution, and network management. For higher classes of service, the operator may provide static IP addresses (necessary for running a server in the field) as well as multicast (necessary for streaming audio/video). Transmission of MPEG-2 compressed video over IP, realtime or not, is a valid application for this technology. The level of technical support needed increases with each service class. The datarate of the outroute is also a function of the class of service, with a rate of up to 48 Mbps possible. Under TCP/IP networking (unlike voice telephone), there is no consistent formula that translates the number of computer"seats" into a required datarate in either direction. Unlike the terrestrial Internet, these sending rates are under the control of the network manager.

An attractive advancement to satellite Internet is Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology. A VPN is a virtual IP circuit between any pair of devices over which the contents are encrypted. This service would be implemented between, for instance, a corporate firewall and a satellite-attached remote workstation. Setup and operation of such a "tunnel" increases the amount of information to be sent and thus decreases the useful throughput of the channel. This approach is used extensively in work-at-home settings over cable modem and DSL where traffic must be encrypted.

Three technical issues differentiate satellite Internet service from terrestrial service: TCP dynamics, capacity, and reliability. These issues are not obstacles per se but require different expectations by customers in the context of the digital divide. These are largely known within the satellite community [13] but not among Internet users, rural or otherwise.

  1. TCP does not natively expect to have so many packets"in the pipeline" at a time. Due to propagation delays inherent in satellite communication as well as a slightly-higher error rate, TCP starts and accelerates slowly. Research is ongoing in this area, (see RFC 2760)but the only solutions are proprietary.
  2. Satellite Internet network performance is related to capacity, the sale of which is a business decision. Inroute satellite channel access is based on variations of TDMA and bandwidth reservation, both of which are very effective under load. With future Ka-band satellites with spot-beam antennas and frequency reuse, transponders could multiply their inroute capacity dramatically. Absent these features, beyond a certain subscriber level or demand level, delays could be problematic for Ku band configurations.
  3. Users of terrestrial networks are unaccustomed to outages of any duration, while satellite Internet may encounter occasional weather-related downtime. Customers may need to make an aesthetic tradeoff for greater reliability through larger antennas. A mesh of satellite and terrestrial dialup backups would be necessary to raise reliability to a commercial level, say 99.99%.

IV. Satellites and the Digital Divide in Appalachian Ohio

Direct broadcast television satellite service is very popular in southeastern Ohio, given that entire townships lack cable television service, which foretells the potential for satellite Internet service. About one-third of townships (an Ohio township covers about 50 square miles) in the counties in and around Ohio University have no cable television franchise. The region has numerous satellite television receiver dealers/installers but, per the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, there is only one satellite high-speed internet dealer in Ohio's formal Appalachian region.

The Ohio Academic Research Network (OARnet) recently deployed unique infrastructure to one community that lacks broadband. Residents of New Straitsville, Ohio, are using Tachyon satellite service over SatMex5 to connect to the Internet. This demonstration project is intended to provide connectivity for job training in the field of medical records and may be duplicated in other local towns in the region.

In 2000, the village had a population of 774, a median family income of $27,557, and a stated unemployment rate of 10.4%; its schools are in a state of "academic watch,"failing the majority of state standards. These demographics are typical for the region, but New Straitsville is among the largest communities not served by broadband.

In this system, local users send packets through Tachyon's Internet gateway which is connected to a node known as the the San Diego National Access Point (NAP), to which both Internet2 and the commodity Internet are connected. The datarates for this project are 256 kbps inroute, 400 kbps outroute, and may be increased with demand.

The first phase of this project also provides wireless LAN access to New Straitsville residents. This kind of network, known as WiFi, is based on the IEEE 802.11b standard using inexpensive off-the-shelf equipment that can be installed by most users. A later phase may expand the wireless LAN footprint or to connect local businesses (for a fee).

V. Conclusions

We may conclude that the digital divide is now narrowed by 1.4 million, the number of satellite Internet subscribers in the U.S. The whole notion of a digital divide based on geography is being dismissed, and the satellite Internet industry deserves credit. In the U.S., design and refinement of satellite Internet products and services is largely the work of the private sector. Indeed, this progress has taken place "one consumer at a time." Projects such as OARnet's are intended to seed the demand-side and spur economic development aspects the digital divide in Appalachia.


REFERENCES

  1. "Characteristics and Choice of Internet Users," U.S. General Accounting Office, February, 2001.
  2. Lenhart, Amanda, "The Ever-Shifting Internet Population,"The Pew Internet and American Life Project, Washington, D.C., April, 2003.
  3. "Digital Divide Basics," http://www.DigitalDivideNetwork.org, Benton Foundation, accessed July, 2003.
  4. Samuelson, Robert J., "Debunking the Digital Divide,"editorial, Washington Post, March 20, 2002.
  5. Eunjung Cha, Ariana, "'Digital Divide' Less Clear; As Internet Use Spreads, Policy Debated Anew, Washington Post, June 29, 2002.
  6. "No More Digital Divide," editorial, Washington Times, July 2, 2002.
  7. Bernt, Phyllis, "Does Access Equal Information: Implications of the National Debate," presented at the 53rd Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, San Diego, California, May 27, 2003.
  8. "A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet," National Telecommunications and Information Administration, February, 2002.
  9. Spooner, Tom, "Asian-Americans and the Internet: the young and the connected," Pew Internet Project, Washington, D.C, 2001.
  10. ARC Online Resource Center, http://www.arc.gov, Appalachian Resource Center, accessed July, 2003.
  11. "The Access Appalachia Report," The (Ohio) Governor's Office of Appalachia, 2002.
  12. Michalek, Meegan M., Ohio SchoolNet Commission, report to the House Primary and Secondary Education Subcommittee, Ohio Legislative Service Commission, March, 2003.
  13. Le-Ngoc, Tho, et al., "Interactive Multimedia Satellite Access Communications," IEEE Communications Magazine, July, 2003.

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