Two of the most ubiquitous trends over the past few years have been in satellite-based TV systems and the huge increase in internet use. So to cash in on both, the logical conclusion is to bring these two technologies closer together. Enter satellite-based internet systems, which can provide turbo internet access at up to 400kbps, four times the speed of existing ISDN-based systems. On private networks data can be transferred at up to 3Mbps.
DirecPC, the first satellite-based internet system, was launched in the UK at the end of last year. Developed by Hughes Olivetti Telecomm, the DirecPC uses an externally mounted satellite dish on the customer?s building to allow them to receive data at incredibly fast rates via the Eutel SatII satellite. The DirecPC system also includes software and an interface card that allows the PC to decode data.
Although satellite-based systems have the advantage of being able to overcome the bandwidth problems of other internet delivery mechanisms and are supported by some of the largest players in the industry, including Intel and Microsoft, there are a number of issues holding back sales.
The biggest technical problem with satellite internet is that it uses asymmetric transmission, which means that the satellite link is just one way. Data leaves the PC via the normal internet service provider, but returning data is routed over the internet backbone and uploaded to the Eutel SatII from a station in Germany. As the internet tends to be used for requesting large amounts of data, asymmetric transmission is not necessarily a problem, but it does restrict the way that the systems can be used.
The other potential stumbling block for satellite internet is price. The DirecPC system, distributed in the UK by Satellite Digital Systems (SDS), is priced at #1,150 for the satellite dish, interface card, software and cables. On top of this the user pays a subscription charge depending on the amount of data that they download each month.
The cost each month for up to 32Mb of downloaded data is #15, rising to #52 per month for up to a hefty 130Mb. The total cost is therefore considerably more than BT?s ISDN startup charge of #199 plus #535 rental charge, offset by a #105 inclusive call allowance.
Speaking when the DirecPC system was launched, SDS MD Brian Milnes said that it was not just a question of price, but that DirecPC was more flexible than ISDN because it was not tied to one physical location. But the distributor does want to bring down the price of the system to kick-start the market in the way that the satellite TV companies at first did to win market share. Although there are technical advantages to using satellite links for internet delivery, there is also some customer resistance.
SDS technical manager Darragh Redmond says that the DirecPC has not been received that well in the UK, and that the pricing is perceived as excessive. ?There is a possibility that we are going to drop the distribution contract if Hughes don?t get behind it,? he says.
Redmond claims that DirecPC is a premium product, which avoids the bandwidth problems of conventional internet delivery systems, but he says pricing needs to come down to boost sales. ?It needs a wider audience. The technology itself is fantastic.?
Redmond estimates that SDS has sold only about 90 DirecPC systems in the UK since its launch, with the majority being sold direct, but some systems being sold through a small network of dealers. The installation of the satellite dish itself ? which is 21 inches to avoid planning restrictions ? is the province of Grenada, which has been appointed by SDS as its sole installer for the dishes. At present, DirecPC only works with a single PC, but there are plans for a network version.
But not all ISPs are impressed by the idea of satellite technology to deliver fast internet services. Steve Kennedy, business development manager at Demon, says that the one-directional nature of satellite technology causes practical problems for ISPs and users. ?The problem with satellite is that all the bandwidth is going in just one direction,? he says. ?So it is not useful for customers that want to do a lot of internet browsing.?
Where satellite internet does score is in allowing ISPs to pull in huge amounts of data, or to send huge amounts of data out to customers. But as Kennedy points out, most customers would not have the storage capacity to handle the amount of data satellite could deliver. There is also the problem that access to the most popular internet sites would still be slow using a satellite link, because the slow speed of the host PC would cause a bottleneck ? thus wasting the potential of the satellite feed?s speed.
Another problem, according to Kennedy, is that the TCP/IP protocol was not designed with massive bandwidth in mind, so every packet of data that is sent requires an acknowledgment, developing a backlog in the system. ?Protocols that require a two-way flow do not work with satellites,? he says.
Kennedy says that internet services will gradually move to satellite technology, driven by momentum from large content providers like Sky. ?There will be a gradual market penetration.? But like satellite TV, the technology may take longer to gain acceptance than the early adopters imagine.
It was a frustration with the slow development of networks for internet and multimedia delivery to the PC that prompted chip vendor Intel to invest $15 million in a satellite company earlier this year. European Satellite Multimedia (Luxembourg), or ESM, is a joint venture with SES, and is Intel?s first venture into providing ?pipe? technology.
ESM provides users with a 20in satellite dish that connects to a digital video broadcasting (DVB) add-in card. Intel director of corporate business development in Europe, Jens Bodenkamp, says that Intel has not been pleased with the slow pace of network development, which pales into insignificance when compared with its own advances in chip technology.
?We felt the need to get involved,? says Bodenkamp, ?but we are not trying to get in the communications business.? For Intel, he says, it is a way to increase the value of the PC to its customers.
Initially, ESM is providing a neutral, non-proprietary satellite delivery mechanism aimed at companies that want to provide prepackaged internet sites to other users (so-called ?push? technology), which it aims to launch in the second half of this year. The company says it will follow this with a $200 connector that will provide satellite and multimedia links for existing satellite TV subscribers.
ESM is using the Astra-Net platform to deliver its services, developed around the Astra satellite which has access to an estimated 23 million households in Europe.
Intel claims that 40 per cent of European homes have satellite dishes of one kind or another (although this varies greatly between countries); a higher proportion than the US. In a statement, Intel said that ?the combination of real-time broadband satellite transmission with store and forward capabilities and emerging push technologies offers an ideal platform for point to multi-point broadcasting?.
According to some ISPs, though, there are some UK-specific problems that might hold back the advent of satellite-based internet systems. In the US, ISP Netcom has a bundling deal with DirecPC, whereby customers that plump for the satellite dish system get free internet connections. Netcom in the UK says it has no plans it follow suit. ?We do not have that bundling deal in the UK,? says product marketing manager Roy Lee. The reason, he says, is geography.
?Satellite internet technology is appropriate for covering vast amounts of landmass when there are poor existing telecommunications on offer,? he says. ?When you are dealing with wide open spaces, satellites can be the only way to deliver an internet service.?
The UK does not have these geographical problems, he says, so there is less of a demand for this type of service. Although some companies that have staff travelling in remote locations abroad might benefit.
Lee also says that there are technical problems that could hold up satellite and make it harder for internet customers to take advantage of it. ?In the US, satellite has taken off in certain areas. But it is really only an appropriate internet delivery mechanism if there are no alternatives.?
Despite the massive bandwidth that satellite creates, there can be a problem with its speed through existing networks. In practice, he says, even the best feature of satellite does not always deliver.
Some ISPs are making limited use of satellite. Uunet uses the massive bandwidth it creates to send huge data dump news-feeds to other ISPs throughout Europe. ?It moves data slower than over land lines and is less responsive,? says Uunet?s Henry Ritson. ?But it is good way to send huge amounts of information in one direction.?
Usenet feeds up huge amounts of bandwidth. Receiving them by satellite allows the European ISPs to keep their land lines free.
The satellite system used by Uunet was developed by Satin Net. The Satin Net system is designed to broadcast a huge range of Usenet groups, and streams between 25,000 and 27,000 of the groups on an eight-hour loop. The company is working on a two-way satellite feed that would allow customer ISPs to poll the Satin Net server for transmission of any data that they do not receive in real time. The problem is that at the moment, ISPs have to wait until the end of the feed to see if anything is missing.
Satellite technology has two very big problems, though, when it comes to internet service for the average business user. ?The first problem is the vast hardware cost the user has to pay up-front, which is far more expensive than ISDN,? says Ritson. ?The second problem is with general interactivity, because it is a one-way technology.? This makes the sending of information from the user a very tiresome business, he says.
But he does not rule out use of satellite internet in the future. ?The reality is that it is very specialist at the moment and there are few uses for it,? says Ritson. ?But the technology is there, and more applications for it will become available.?
Satellite looks set to remain a niche market for the next few years. But it does have a future, if only because of the nature of the industry players that are backing it. Internet satellite is the medium of the media mogul of the future.
In the US, for example, there are reports that Bill Gates ? spurred on by the Intel joint venture ? is considering using Soviet-built SS-18 missiles, in a $9 billion project to launch up to 840 satellites to create a giant internet-style system for clearer internet transmission. Meanwhile, Pace and Hitachi are testing slot-in cards that allow the downloading of internet data at speeds of up to 20Mbps ? 800 times faster than existing phone lines. Pace says that these speeds would allow broadcasters to send ?narrow cast? ? sending video magazines to individual users and special interest groups.
Ultimately, the feature that will drive the growth of satellite internet technology will be the push from the satellite digital-TV broadcasters, as the multimedia services they offer become more interactive. The distinction between internet and interactive TV will become increasingly blurred, and the ability of satellite to send data in two directions will actually take advantage of interactive technologies.
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