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Cheap satellite terminals key to bridging digital divide, execs say

Asia Satellite Broadcast CEO Thomas Choi speaking at Satellite 2017. Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — The key to extending internet access to billions of people around the globe is not launching a massive constellation of satellites into low Earth orbit, but creating inexpensive terminals, senior industry executives said March 9 at the Satellite 2017 conference.

“To solve this digital divide, this gap, you have to make sure your terminals are extremely low cost, much lower than the $400 terminals available today,” said Thomas Choi, Asia Broadcast Satellite chief executive.

In Taiwan, people can buy 75-centimeter high gain Ka-band VSAT antennas for $60, Choi said. If manufacturers could produce internal modems that operates with the VSAT antennas for $20 or $30, perhaps a complete kit with a radio could sell for $100. At that price, a group of 10 neighbors in a poor, rural area could afford to use it and the industry could make a profit, he added.

ABS plans to introduce satellite communications to specific locations, where the firm knows it can “bring in a lot of capacity on a low-cost basis,” Choi said. “We are not talking about a terabit satellite, but smaller 50-gigabit or 100-gigabit satellites that provide capacity where we know how to provide services.”

In sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia, for example, ABS is targeting regions with large rural populations, rising incomes and little infrastructure. “That’s where we think access to residential broadband will be the most attractive,” Choi said.

David Harrower, iDirect business development vice president, said the industry also will need to produce inexpensive flat-panel antennas to supply communications for aircraft, ships, connected cars and the Internet of Things.

“Ultimately, antennas will have to be cheap, easy to install and readily accessible,” Harrower said. “We would anticipate that we are going to see in the next two to three years terminals in the $100 range for the consumer marketplace.”

If Choi had his way, the industry would find a way to offer Internet service to customers in poor, rural areas free of charge, the same way Google and Facebook offer free service.

For satellites, “the killer app would be if the amount of capacity you could deliver was so high you could offer a free broadband service,” Choi said. Then, the industry would attract millions of new users and service providers could pay for their operations by selling advertisements.

“In a place where people can’t pay, maybe instead of trying to collect their pennies and nickels we could collect from big corporations that sell soap and shampoo,” he said.

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Cheap satellite terminals key to bridging digital divide, execs say

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