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Issue 5: Critical Perspectives

Bridge Over Troubled Skies:
Satellite Broadband and the Digital Divide


From the foregoing analysis, two conclusions are clear: that the Federal Government, along with many in the private sector, believe that satellites hold great potential for providing broadband services to rural areas; and that, despite the optimism of a few years ago, satellites are playing almost no role in the delivery of broadband services today. Thus the question is fairly raised: what can be done to encourage the development of high-speed, satellite-delivered broadband services -- services that operate as well as cable modem and DSL services, and that are universally available and affordable?

In the past, faced with somewhat analogous situations involving rural and remote areas, the Federal Government has stepped in with subsidies and other programs, such as, for example, with respect to rural electrification and rural telephone service. The current satellite broadband situation would seem an ideal one for similar Federal Government intervention, and a meaningful start could be made without having an impact on the deficit-ridden federal budget. The Federal Government collects today from all telecommunications carriers (who typically pass the cost along to their users) an amount of funding designated for so-called "universal service."

While the Universal Service Fund was initially dedicated to the extension of telephone service into rural areas, more recently the program, sometimes known today as "e-rate," is supposed also to make funding available for broadband and Internet connectivity. But because the grant formulas are relatively complex, and because there is no governmental policy pushing for satellite broadband, those in the best position to develop new two-way broadband via satellite services -- satellite operators and satellite equipment vendors -- do not today have any incentive to seek Federal Government funding for such initiatives.

There have been, from time to time, efforts made in the U.S. Congress to create funding for broadband access in rural areas, including through the development of satellite services. But these efforts have been scattered and, despite the clout of the rural interests in the U.S. Congress, have not led to any meaningful grant programs, under the e-rate approach or any other. Hence it will take a new initiative, presumably pushed by the Administration, with the support of the Congress, to create the necessary "jumpstart" for the development and deployment of broadband via satellite in rural areas.

It is important to emphasize that no technological leaps of faith are necessary in the development of such an initiative. The satellite capabilities exist already, in orbit, with sufficient capacity. The ground technologies are well-known, but developing them in a way that allows for relatively inexpensive deployment, and with seamless connectivity with other networks, remains an elusive goal. The challenge, however, is far less daunting than the challenges that were associated with ubiquitous rural electrification and rural telephony, and yet our national objectives in those areas were achieved many decades ago.

In the past, when worthy goals had been agreed upon among key Members of Congress and key U.S. Government agencies, such as the FCC and the NTIA, there has been a basis for mobilizing resources to achieve the goals. There is no question that the goal of making broadband more available in rural and remote parts of the United States, and indeed the world, is widely shared, with broad consensus among those most influential in the United States. It will take a few determined advocates, including advocates from the satellite sector, to push the Congress and the Administration in the direction in which they are already inclined to move, to the great benefit of the satellite industry and ultimately to the benefit of all who live in rural and remote areas.

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