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Headlines Published on 15 December 2004

Title Broadband spreads its rural wings

Space has found a new frontier – education. The EU-backed Rural Wings project is using satellite technology to reach schools in remote communities on three continents and provide them with high-speed internet access.

Rural Wings is helping the EU to fulfil its ambition of providing broadband access for all. © France Télécom
Rural Wings is helping the EU to fulfil its ambition of providing broadband access for all.
© France Télécom
As many as 14 million families living in rural areas of the European Union do not enjoy high-speed internet access, also known as broadband. One reason for this is because the technology involved is usually too costly to extend to these small and remote communities.

But as broadband becomes more deeply established in urban areas, the EU’s ‘digital divide’ has widened. In the information age, this has serious social implications. It is also an obstacle to Europe’s quest to become the world’s leading knowledge-based society. Aware of this issue, the Union has launched several initiatives to close the chasm, including eEurope 2005 which aims to extend broadband access to all European schools, universities and businesses.

Rural Wings, a new EU-backed project, aims to complement these initiatives by bringing high-speed connectivity to some of the remotest rural communities, not just in Europe, but also in Africa and Canada. Funded through ‘Aeronautics and space’ thematic priority of the Sixth Framework Programme for Research (FP6), the project aims to promote digital literacy in rural communities.

“Rural Wings will promote ‘broadband for all’,” explains Menelaos Sotiriou of QPlan, a Greek partner in the project. “It will use a satellite communication systems to connect rural areas in several countries with one another.”

He notes that Greece already has a similar project in place to reach distant mountain areas but using older technological infrastructure. ZEUS (the satellite network of rural schools) employs advanced communication channels for the provision of support to hard-to-reach schools in Greece, particularly for teacher training.

Orbiting the World Wide Web
Space research is often seen as a tool for helping us to lift the veil of mystery off that ‘final frontier’. But space technology can have useful applications closer to Earth. Satellite communications, for instance, offer the prospect of extending high-speed internet communication – known as broadband – to remote rural communities.

“The optimum solution to quickly start closing the digital divide is clearly a broadband fixed wireless access, as wireless solutions have the ability to be both transitory and permanent technologies at the same time,” the project’s 29 partners observe.

Cost was once a major hurdle in using satellite technology to connect to the web. But rapid technological advances in recent years have brought prices right down. In fact, when it comes to remote areas of the countryside, it is more cost-effective than the fixed-line based ADSL system favoured in urban areas.

Commercially available satellite dishes now also allow for two-way broadband access. Earlier technology only enabled dishes to receive but not to transmit information – a major handicap when it comes to the internet.

The system’s architecture is built around ‘learning hubs’ in which the satellite dish is placed. Surrounding schools, known as the ‘learning community’, use wireless technology to communicate with the hub.

There will be dozens of pilot hubs in 21 European and African countries, as well as Canada, in a bid to promote “a new culture in rural communities promoting digital literacy and reducing resistance to the use of new technologies”.

Source:  EU and external sources

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