Mind the Gap

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Photo: SSPI

There is a gap running down the center of the world. A gap between the privileged, and those struggling for access. Access to good work, knowledge, and the means to pursue their calling and preserve their communities.
More than half of the world’s population has no access to the internet, according to the United Nations (UN), with Asia and Africa having the lowest rates of access. About 3.6 billion or 52 percent of our global citizens are online, which is up 400 million from the previous year.
In Europe, high-speed fixed broadband with at least 30 Mbps download speeds was available to 79 perent of European Union households. In the U.S., 6 percent of the population lack access to fixed broadband services at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s threshold of 25 Mbps down, according to the Commission. That figure probably makes the situation look better than it is, because the FCC uses county-level data in its analysis. If the county has one high-speed service provider, the assumption is that everyone in the county has access to it. And that is not often the case.
Generally speaking, people in rural areas have less connectivity than those in urban ones. That 6 percent average for Americans without broadband jumps to 25 percent in rural areas, and the same pattern is visible everywhere due to the costs of terrestrial deployment. Interestingly, however, the actual number of unconnected individuals is often higher in cities than in rural areas, because population concentrates there and poor people struggle to afford it. According to ReCode, there are 62 million Americans in urban centers and 16 million on rural locations who can’t access fast internet.
Satellite has long held out the promise of closing that gap — if the price per subscriber can get to an affordable level while delivering enough speed and overall capacity. After decades when that was not the case, High Throughput Satellite (HTS) services from ViaSat, Hughes, and Eutelsat are beginning to deliver. The village hotspot model being pioneered by ViaSat has brought a million Mexican villagers online for the first time.

Stopping the Brain Drain
When lack of connectivity leads to lack of opportunity, it causes people around the world to vote with their feet for a better life. In places like East Timor and the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, brain drain is a big problem, which causes the “place called home” to slip further and further behind.
Now, for the first time, affordable broadband is coming to the Pacific and the rural stretches of Asia, thanks to a company called Kacific. It has been delivering broadband to the Asia-Pacific since 2017 using a patchwork of Ku-band capacity on various satellites. Kacific markets its services to local service providers across the region. These small businesses become stakeholders in their islands’ future and help stop brain drain.
Within a year, it is scheduled to launch its Ka-band Kacific-1, under construction by Boeing. With 56 spot beams spanning countries from Nepal to French Polynesia, the satellite already has a backlog worth $618 million. A second satellite is in the planning stages.
Moving People Out of Harm’s Way
When natural disaster strikes, connectivity gets people out of harm’s way. When a volcano erupted in the Pacific nation of Vanatau, it was coordination over satellite that made it possible to evacuate 10,000 people from the disaster zone.
That kind of coordination does not happen by accident. In one of the under-appreciated developments of 2018, two industry associations and the world’s top satellite operators reached agreement with the United Nations World Food Program to help the world respond faster to disaster. The Crisis Connectivity Charter commits the partners to pre-position satellite equipment in countries at high risk for disaster, train users and give priority for satellite access to humanitarian agencies. It is an agreement to share the burden of disaster – and the savings in suffering, in human life, in economic loss will be almost too great to count.
More than Internet
Connectivity is ultimately about more than the internet. It is about access to knowledge, to services, to opportunity. Minding the gap is not only about technology — it is about unleashing the ability of people to make a better life for themselves.
This is something dedicated people in the United Kingdom are doing for students in Africa. The University of Leeds and Goonhilly Earth Stationin Cornwall are working with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory to teach high-tech skills to African youth. The project, called Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA), is also supported by the U.K. Space Agency,Oxford and other British universities.
It began as a research project — rebuilding an old satellite antenna as a radio telescope. Today, it is an award-winning international collaboration between science and industry.
Since its founding, the DARA project has trained 140 students in the technologies of radio astronomy and has another 120 in the queue. The goal? To give students skills, confidence and a passion they can bring home — to finish their own astronomy projects, to get good jobs, to launch businesses and inspire their communities to reach for the stars.
These are companies and organizations dedicated to close the gap running down the center of the world. They are winners of the 2018 Better Satellite World Awards from the Space & Satellite Professionals International (SSPI). And because of them and so many others, the number of the world’s people who are left behind grows smaller every year. At a time of political division and economic disruption — and the pain and anxiety they bring — that is something to celebrate.

Robert Bell is executive director of the Space & Satellite Professionals International. SSPI produces the Better Satellite World campaign, which dramatizes the immense contributions of space and satellite to life on Earth. More at www.bettersatelliteworld.com.