The Sky's the Limit for Internet Access

When you stop to think about it, the Internet has a lot in common with television. So, maybe the idea of a combined TV/Internet satellite dish on your balcony isn't so far-fetched.

by Thomas Caldwell

Farmers love satellites. While the image of a bespectacled aerospace engineer with pens in his pocket sitting down to dinner with someone who grows rice for a living may seem incongruous, there is no doubt that the quality of life of those who live and work in rural areas has been greatly improved by modern broadcast satellites that beam television and radio programming to even the remotest corners of the earth.

The first satellite television transmissions began in the early 1960s, although it wasn't until much later that the average person could afford to set up his or her own "ground station." But when dish antennas began to spring up like mushrooms in rural areas in the '70s, what we now call the "information revolution" began in earnest. A fur trapper in Alaska could watch Walter Cronkite deliver the evening news at the same time as a stock broker on Wall Street. The size of the world, already successively reduced by telegraph, telephone, radio, and conventional television, suddenly got even smaller.

One if by land, two if by sky
Today, of course, satellite TV is old hat -- especially here in Japan, where small dish antennas on balconies and roofs are common sights even in urban areas. Although many areas in North America previously served by satellite are now hooked up to cable, a lot of people around the world still rely on the big birds in the sky to keep them informed of what the rest of the planet is up to. Then there's the Internet. Some industry leaders have called the Internet "the other tube." But unlike television, with its satellite broadcasts, the Internet is dependent on a vast network of cables and fiber pipes. Or is it?

The phenomenal growth of the Internet has encouraged some access providers to look to the heavens as a way to keep traffic flowing smoothly along the Information Super Highway. If things continue on their present course, a few years from now most of the material you access via the Internet could come to you by satellite.

If we stop to think about how the Internet really works, it is not all that surprising that data transmission by satellite could be a practical alternative to terrestrial cables. Whether you regularly surf the Web, spend your day reading newsgroups, or subscribe to a few mailing lists, you are always receiving far more information than you send. A mouse click on your favorite webpage, for example, sends only a few bytes down the line, but kilobytes or even megabytes of data come back to your computer in response.

There are national discrepancies, as well. Depending on who you talk to, the ratio of Internet data coming into and going out of Japan is somewhere between 5-to-1 and 10-to-1. And with multimedia features like audio, video, and music becoming more and more common, the proportion of data received to data sent will no doubt become even more lopsided.

No, "interactive" is not really a term that applies to Internet use. What is actually happening is a form of customized "broadcast" -- and broadcasting is a task that satellites are ideally suited for.

Satellites have several advantages over land lines when it comes to transmitting and receiving large amounts of data. The first is speed: since there is no physical link between the satellite and a receiving station on the ground, there is no inherent physical limit as to how much bandwidth can be supplied to each customer.

The only limit to transmission bandwidth is that imposed by the data capability of the satellite itself, not of a physical line that stretches for thousands of kilometers. If a customer needs more bandwidth, it can be provided quickly with little, if any, waiting period. A T3 (45M-bps) connection is as quick and easy to install as a 64K-bps connection -- no need to wait for the phone company to get round to installing a line, which here in Japan has been known to take many weeks.

Another advantage of satellites is the coverage area, which is why people living in remote areas have come to rely on them. A connection can be established anywhere within the satellite's broadcast footprint, so long as the dish on the ground can be pointed at the right part of the sky.

Satellite Internet access
The principle for using satellites with the Internet is pretty much the same as with television, both for individual users and Internet service providers (ISPs). As with television, the user makes an "upstream" request (a channel or movie selection), and the rest is all unidirectional "downstream" download. The computer user connects his PC to a device similar to a conventional TV signal receiver, which in turn is connected to a dish on a roof or a balcony. The upstream request for a webpage, or the sending of an outgoing message, may still go to the ISP via a conventional phone line. But incoming e-mail, newsgroup postings, software updates, and audio/video data is relayed to the user via a satellite -- and at speeds that make an ISDN (integrated services digital network) line look slow.

One of the companies that has jumped headfirst into this new business is PanAmSat, a pioneer in the broadcast satellite business. Founded in 1984 by a former employee of Intelsat, the company launched its first telecommunications satellite in 1988. PanAmSat now has 17 satellites in its "fleet."

PanAmSat has already become an integral part of the Internet in some areas of the world. If you live in Mongolia, for example, your e-mail comes to you courtesy of PanAmSat.

PanAmSat's main business line is providing satellite transmission and reception services for television networks and producers. The company recently began offering Internet services to ISPs and corporations, with impressive results. In the past year, Internet-related business accounted for about 10% ofÊcorporate income, and PanAmSat's John Chesen in Tokyo predicts that in the near future as much as 40% of revenues could come from Internet and other data transmission services.

Another company currently peddling a home-user satellite Internet reception system is DirecPC. The company offers its customers in North America what it calls Turbo Internet Access, which in English means data transmission speeds of 400K bps. Customers use a parabolic antenna system, which they usually install themselves, and pay a monthly fee.

In Japan, meanwhile, a system called Space-B has been jointly developed by Internet provider Bekkoame and NTT. The system's high price, however, makes it attractive only to the corporate and institutional market (and perhaps a few of the smaller ISPs). NTT has also announced plans for a system to be developed jointly with satellite TV company J-SAT -- one that will be aimed at private users. The company began looking into the viability of satellite Internet systems in 1996 in conjunction with several universities. NTT hopes to have something on the market by September 1998 that will allow current J-SAT users to access the Internet, but according to company spokesman Hitoshi Ono, everything is still in the planning stages, and much will depend on market reaction to the venture.

A "wait-and-see" market
Although Bekkoame has jumped on the satellite Internet bandwagon, most major ISPs in Japan have not. While many in the industry believe that there are cases in which satellites have advantages, such as access to remote locations or system back-up, most ISPs remain cautious.

Vincent Gebes, managing director of PSINet Japan, says that there has been a lot of discussion in the Japanese ISP market about satellite usage in recent years. Much of the interest, however, is being driven by companies that have invested a lot in satellites and are looking for a way to cash-in on the Internet boom. "Satellite doesn't really offer any sort of killer advantage from an ISP perspective -- or even an end-user perspective," says Gebes.

In spite of all the talk about saving money -- a prospect that any company would jump at -- Gebes says that few have been so fortunate. "My personal opinion is that it is an interesting idea. But if you look at some of the cost structure of an ISP, if it were really going to save us a lot of money, more people would have done it already."

Global Online's Roger Boisvert holds a similar opinion about the cost-saving possibilities of satellite Internet, but he also believes there is a need for Internet traffic to be managed in a more broadcast-like fashion. He also asserts that not enough attention is being given to the type of computers that are needed to take full advantage of high-speed satellite transmission. "The speeds being talked about might sound impressive for an end user at home," says Boisvert, "but what good are they when most PCs have a top serial port speed of only 115K bps?"

The flip side
In spite of the growing concern about bandwidth limitations with traditional fiber cables, which is drawing attention to satellites, satellite-based Internet access has some drawbacks of its own. Certain weather conditions, such as high-altitude rainstorms or heavy snow, for example, can interfere with receivers operating on the KU-band (the kind used for satellite TV in Japan) and cause signal strength to drop off to almost nothing. In places where bad weather is common, this would pose a problem; imagine not being able to surf the Web during a blizzard.

Satellite systems that operate on C-band, on the other hand, don't have any real problems with the weather. Even if a KU-band system goes offline during a snowstorm, chances are a C-band system will keep operating trouble-free (so long as the dish is kept relatively free of snow).

However, C-band dish antennas are large and cumbersome; they measure two to three meters in diameter, on average, whereas a KU-band antenna is small enough to fit almost anywhere. And even if one has space to put up a C-band dish, Japan's construction regulations permit only licensed (highly-paid) professionals to install large parabolic antennas. While at first glance this might appear to be another annoying regulation, it is done for safety and insurance reasons. Just consider the consequences if that big dish you put up on your roof by yourself blows off in a storm and kills somebody, and you aren't covered by insurance.

Another problem is that C-band is the most common method of microwave transmission in Tokyo and other metropolitan areas. While satellite dishes point to the sky, microwave dishes are aimed horizontally -- so if a microwave antenna's line-of-sight transmission intersects with your satellite dish's path, you'll be blown off the air. There is no way a relatively weak transmission from space can compete with one just a kilometer or two away. And Tokyo and other Japanese cities being what they are, finding out whose signal is causing interferference can be difficult to track down, and almost impossible to do anything about.

Thus, no one is suggesting that satellite Internet can completely replace land lines. For one thing, the upstream user-to-ISP requests for information will still require a conventional line. And private satellite uplink sites for ISPs and corporate users, let alone individuals, would also be highly impractical. There will almost always be a terrestrial link involved.

Back-up for The Big One
Still, satellite Internet services could provide another layer of redundancy for a system built with redundancy in mind -- something that could be very useful if Tokyo is ever hit by a major earthquake.

Like many executives at Japanese ISPs, PSINet's Gebes is not comfortable with the way that infrastructure is centralized in the Japanese capital. "The real issue in the Japanese Internet today is that it is very concentrated in Tokyo. Most of the inter-provider traffic is currently being exchanged in Tokyo."

"There is a new connection point in Osaka," Gebes continues, "but except for that, there really is no place outside of the KDD Otemachi building where providers are exchanging traffic." And that, he warns, could prove a major problem. If this critical juncture point for the Japanese Internet were destroyed or heavily damaged by an earthquake or fire, "you basically can't talk to anybody else because much of the Japanese Internet would down for at least several weeks." According to Gebes, it will be at least another year before there is any change to the situation.

The changing cyberscape
The upstream/downstream information imbalance makes the use of high-volume, one-way data transmission systems like satellites not only attractive, but desirable. And the redundancy that a satellite connection can offer represents a safety net in case of damage to ground-based telecommunications infrastructure.

It has been said that the reason the first skyscrapers were built was because land was expensive and the sky was free. Given the phenomenal cost of laying transoceanic cables or wiring homes in remote rural areas, and the high cost of phone line usage here in Japan, satellite Internet has a chance to play a major role in changing Japanese cyberspace.

There is still some skepticism, both among ISPs and users, about the practicality of satellite Internet, but the technology, like the Internet itself, is still quite new.

Acceptance, and with it a new cyberscape, could come overnight.

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