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Issue 5: Critical Perspectives

Bridging the Digital Divide: Towards a New Paradigm

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The interesting application of the both the ACES and Thuraya systems is the concept of fixed terminals in kiosks or gateways which can be located in villages providing basic telephone (or even INTERNET) service to previously unreached by any telecommunication medium.

The results could be dramatic. As many development studies have shown the introduction of even one telephone line in a village can drastically alter the economic conditions and way of life of villagers. A telephone can provide instantaneous access to vital market, weather, news and other information and invaluable contact with the outside world.

But given the major downturn in the satellite communications industry, efforts to improve access to information such as the abovementioned are in jeopardy unless it receives some support from the development sector. Of the three--only Thuraya is in good financial footing--partly because it is serving a relatively affluent region. Worldspace and ACES will probably need some public funding or international development aid support in order to survive. There is some precedent to this. The Thai satellite operator, Shin Satellite received a loan and some concessions from the U.S. Export-Import bank to finance its IPSTAR broadband satellite due for launch this year.

Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, many local development initiatives need some commercial support. Satellite technology is a very expensive option to most community development and education programs and are therefore rarely considered.

With a huge glut in capacity of commercial satellites, we actually have a unique opportunity here for partnership which would allow development-oriented, non-commercial use of some satellite capacity. This is not new to the industry. In 1984, INTELSAT had a special program as part of its twentieth anniversary celebrations called Project SHARE (Satellites for Health and Rural Education). The project lasted three years and provided free satellite transponder capacity for health and educational programs.

Can you imagine the impact if commercial satellite operators provide even only a fraction of their unused capacity for underserved and "information-challenged" regions and development projects? For satellites to fulfill its promise as a medium that will help bridge the digital divide would require the concerted effort of both commercial and non-commercial sectors. The synergy from such a partnership would go a long way towards bridging that proverbial gap between the information- "haves" and "have nots."


Virgil Labrador is the editor of Satnews Daily and Weekly editions, the International Satellite Directory and the monthly e-zine, SATMAGAZINE. He has worked in various capacities in the satellite industry, more recently, as marketing director of the Asia Broadcast Center in Singapore--a full-service teleport owned at that time by US broadcasting company, CBS. He has co-written several books on media management and communications policy and is currently working on a history of the communications satellite industry.

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