29 Oct 2012
A Caution on Satellite Broadband for Remote Communities
Avonline and Tooway are offering satellite broadband at prices that are reasonably close to those available in cities for a superficially similar service. They are extremely attractive for rural areas where there appears to be no real alternative. The purpose of this note is to set out some of the problems with satellite offerings.
Cost First, these packages come, for good reason, with a monthly limit of the amount of data you can download. A basic package provides 5GB (gigabytes), which is enough to stream 2-3 hours of high-definition TV. Our experience is that households in rural areas – especially households with children – can well exceed that limit. Cisco predicts that the average household will generate over 128GB per month by 2016. In fact, this is a world-wide prediction. If Scotland wants to be ahead of the game, the demand there should be greater.
Latency It takes at least 1/4 second for a packet to be transmitted from earth and back via geostationary satellite. If two people are using satellite connections the delay is at least 1/2 second and usually more. Using VOIP (Skype, Internet telephones etc) with this kind of delay is difficult. Moreover applications, such as secure banking, require extensive “handshaking”, and therefore multiple round-trips. In any demonstration, be sure that you see an example of a VOIP connection with two round-trips.
Long-term prospects The Hylas-1, Hylas-2 and Eutelsat KA-SAT have recently been launched, so there is substantial additional capacity. The number of consumers that these will serve is estimated at 2.3 million (presumably at the lowest quality of service). However there are are also estimated to be some 30 million premises in Europe alone with broadband speeds that make the current offering look attractive. Unless more satellites are launched the demand, and hence the price, are certain to go up. Be sure to check on the maximum length of contract.
Infrastructure Remote communities need improved infrastructure (fibre and high-speed terrestrial wireless). Using satellite will reduce the pressure on government and telecommunications companies to improve this infrastructure.
Experience Communities on Knoydart and Eigg have been “burned” by satellite companies failing, and even the government-subsidised Avanti offering has performed below expectations (Avanti is a partner of Avonline). This has led Knoydart and Eigg, for example, to build their own wireless networks that have greatly outperformed, and proved cheaper than, current satellite offerings.
Further technical documentation shows that Scotland is relatively poorly served by existing satellites. It is on the fringe of coverage and has rather low aggregated available bandwidth.
To summarise: Satellite may be useful as a stop-gap solution, and will be useful for short-term ad hoc connections; but unless terrestrial infrastructure is improved, be prepared to be relatively worse off in five years time than you are now. Also, look carefully at the price you will end up paying and the performance you will be getting. The alternative of community broadband projects, although they require an investment of effort, deliver better performance at lower costs with lasting improvements to the infrastructure.
University of Edinburgh & Tegola
University of Edinburgh & RSE Digital Scotland report
Eigg & HebNet
Knoydart & Knoydart Foundation
University of Stirling & Network Engineer, HUBS