How satellite technology can help close the digital divide

According to the FCC and others, satellite technology holds promise

satellite-internetAs high-speed internet service becomes more ubiquitous in American households, some readers might be surprised to find out that a “digital divide” exists in many of our schools.

According to a 2014 blog post from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, “Forty-one percent of America’s rural schools couldn’t get a high-speed connection if they tried,”— where a high-speed connection is defined as offering speeds of 10Mbps or higher. Whereas he may have been right that they don’t have it, he was wrong to conclude they couldn’t get it. Indeed, many individuals living in urban areas are typically well served by fiber-optic, cable or DSL providers, unaware that high-quality satellite internet is available virtually everywhere, nationwide, and at affordable prices— no matter where you live, work, or go to school. So the digital divide in fact is a misnomer; it’s really a terrestrial digital divide as the FCC itself has now concluded.

In its recent 2014 Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report, the FCC stated that, “the launch of a new generation of Ka band satellites represents an important advance in consumer-based satellite service which will benefit those consumers under-served by terrestrial alternatives.” The report continued, saying, “because satellites broadcast wirelessly directly to the consumer, no actual terrestrial infrastructure has to be deployed. As a result, satellite technologies have a more uniform cost structure, which is unique among the technologies under study in our Report.” Chairman Wheeler acknowledged as much, stating, “Fiber connection costs are much higher for rural schools and libraries. As a result, either there is no fiber, or that level of connectivity is only available at an unreasonably high price. It may not be unusual, but it is unacceptable that these realities are allowed to hurt students.”

The reason comes down to economics. Last mile infrastructure costs of deploying terrestrial broadband in lower density areas, whether fiber, cable or DSL, are simply not justified for profit-driven providers. Meanwhile, high-speed satellite internet access has expanded to well over 1.5 million households in the U.S.

So the good news that’s now well understood is that high-quality levels of satellite connectivity to rural areas is available at a range of affordable price points, and can put an end to the digital divide for any school, no matter the geographic location.

What remains is for local governments and school administrators to seize the initiative and pursue the best service at the best value to eliminate the digital divide in our schools. The White House and the FCC have paved the way for schools to receive Internet services at a discount, through programs like ConnectED of June 2013, the E-rate Modernization Order of July 11, 2014 and the Second E-rate Modernization Order of December 11, 2014.

It’s simply unacceptable that a significant percentage of our school children are falling behind due to a perceived lack of internet availability, a benefit that we take for granted by living in a first-world country.

Our children deserve nothing less.

Tony Bardo is assistant vice president, government solutions for Hughes.

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