As the recent World Summit on the Information Society amply highlighted, there is an acute global ‘digital divide'. However, it is not only poor countries that are missing out on the benefits of the internet, some remote rural areas in Europe lack decent access to the World Wide Web. TWISTER and other EU-backed initiatives aim to remedy this situation through satellite technology.
At least 50 heads of state and government joined thousands of politicians, officials, IT and development experts, civil society representatives, NGOs and computer firms in the Tunisian capital Tunis to discuss ways of bridging the global ‘digital divide'. This second phase of the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which took place between 16 and 18 November 2005, followed the groundbreaking launch of the initiative in December 2003, when 175 countries adopted a declaration of principles and a plan of action.
|Space technology is coming down to Earth to help bridge the digital divide.|
© ESA/AOES Med
Although the main focus of the WSIS is on the huge chasm in internet access separating rich and poor countries, there also exists a digital divide, particularly when it comes to high speed, or broadband, access within developed countries, including many EU Member States. As many as 14 million families living in rural areas of the European Union do not enjoy broadband access. One reason for this is because the technology involved is usually too costly to extend to these small and remote communities.
In the information age, this has serious implications, particularly in light of Europe's declared commitment to social cohesion. It is also an obstacle to the Union's quest to become the world's leading knowledge-based society. Aware of this issue, the EU has launched several initiatives to close the chasm, including eEurope 2005 which aims to extend broadband access to all European schools, universities and businesses.
Bringing space into cyberspace
According to the EU-funded TWISTER (Terrestrial Wireless Infrastructure Integrated with Satellite Telecommunications for E-Rural) project, telecommunications satellites are an increasingly feasible way of hooking up remote rural communities to broadband.
“[They] are one of the keys to reducing the digital divide, especially in the more isolated areas, in much the same way as they brought telephone services [there],” maintains Magali Vaissière of EADS Astrium, a European aerospace giant and leading partner in the project. “In fact, as far as internet access is concerned, there are geographical areas where there is just no alternative to satellites.”
Launched in early 2004, TWISTER is working to set up bi-directional satellite broadband services combined with conventional local area networks (LANs) or wireless (WiFi) networks in more than 100 validation sites across Europe. By early 2005, a dozen validation sites had already been established in France, Poland and Spain. By the end of the year, TWISTER plans to have 50 such pilot locations up and running.
Space research is often seen as an elaborate tool for helping us to lift the veil of mystery from that ‘final frontier'. But, as this project demonstrates, space technology can have useful applications closer to Earth.
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. Commercially available satellite dishes now 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. And, as technology improves further, prices are expected to rocket… but downwards.
Some of the TWISTER partners have a longer-term plan that will help lower costs: launching dedicated geostationary satellites. The basic difference between this and a conventional telecommunications satellite lies in the system's basic architecture and payload which make optimal use of the frequency spectrum to boost bandwidth artificially from 2 to 15 megabits per second. One such satellite can relay 1-1.5 million simultaneous internet connections and would cost around €85 million.
This would make accessing the internet through satellite technology an increasingly feasible option for poorer countries which often lack the basic infrastructure needed to get on-line. Another EU-funded project, Rural Wings aims to bring broadband to some of the remotest rural communities, not just in Europe, but also in Africa and North America . It is setting up dozens of pilot hubs in 21 European and African countries, as well as Canada, in a bid to help bring about “a new culture in rural communities promoting digital literacy and reducing resistance to the use of new technologies”.