Space Host

The northeastern corner of Arizona, home of the Navajo Reservation, is one of the world’s most desolate spots. Endless miles of sand, rock and scrub are interrupted only briefly by sparse human settlements. Broadband access? High-speed links are about as abundant as flowing water in this rugged desert country. Even the telephone infrastructure has remained largely untouched since lines were first strung in the 1930s and ’40s.

Providing distance-learning support to 110 Navajo chapter houses – reservation community centres – has been an ongoing challenge for Ed Groenhout, vice-president of strategic initiatives at Northern Arizona University. The chapter houses, funded by the Navajo Nation, provide a variety of health, education, communication, shopping and other services, including adult training programs. Northern Arizona University’s distance-learning project helps Navajos prepare for jobs in the hospitality industry. “Each chapter house has only one phone line, which is usually reserved for business and emergency purposes,” he says. “Even if the line was available for extended periods, it might not be able to maintain a reliable 28.8K connection, given the existing line conditions.”

In the absence of plentiful and reliable landline links, Groenhout was forced to consider a wireless alternative. But the most popular wireless technology – fixed wireless – wasn’t an option. “In Kansas, you can get a 70-mile circle of coverage with fixed wireless, but not in the mountainous landscape of northern Arizona,” he says. “The only place we could look was up.”

So Northern Arizona University, like many organizations that must provide high-speed Internet access to customers or remote employees, turned to two-way satellite technology from StarBand Communications Inc. for an immediate solution to its broadband needs. With landline service providers continuing to focus on urban and suburban customers for T-1, DSL, cable and other broadband technologies, satellites provide an attractive alternative for the bandwidth starved.

“For rural firms, and even some city and suburban businesses, there often isn’t any other choice,” says Gareth Owen, a senior analyst with Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based technology market research company. Gartner expects the number of satellite broadband users to swell to 2.4 million people in North America by 2004, says Owen.

Yet satellite service, despite its growing appeal, is pushing up against some formidable barriers. Combined subscription, equipment and installation costs, for example, remain higher than equivalent landline services. Customers must also deal with a variety of performance-robbing technical issues, including high costs and delayed and obstructed signals.

“To say that satellite is the best broadband solution would be misleading,” says Paul Dykewicz, a senior satellite industry analyst with PBI Media, formerly Phillips Business Information, a research and publishing company in Potomac, Md. “But the technology is certainly a lifeline for many organizations that have no alternative.”