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Two-way Broadband Internet Connectivity?

Just about everyone has seen the 18" round satellite dish that thousands of consumers use to receive TV satellite signals. Many can be found attached to RVs and long-haul trucking tractors while their owners enjoy easy access to their favorite TV programming even when they are miles away from land-line connections. For years, Dashboarders have anticipated similar connectivity to the Internet at speeds that would enable true, two-way broadband access while sitting on a glacier, under a giant sequoia, or any remote location. For our purposes, broadband access is defined as any two-way throughput greater than 400 Kbps.

It turns out that the majority of consumers employing those cute 18" dishes are using a landline telephone as the mechanism to send the up-load component of the signal. Some early adopters have been successfully using wireless digital cellular phones as the upload signal to reach the communication satellites, which in turn can access the Internet. But, (with the exception of KVH's TracNet - below) the process is very tricky and requires specialized equipment and knowledge.

For a while, we thought (and insiders at both Hughes Network Systems and Dish Network shared this perspective) that HughesNet or Starband might be able to provide the first cost-effective, efficient, true two-way broadband Internet access we were seeking. There were three fundamental flaws in this plan. First, the FCC has never licensed this technology for mobile use by consumers and, in fact, requires that anyone making adjustments to the equipment be FCC-certified. Two, most of the hardware has not been hardened to withstand the rigors of on-the-road use, and the required antenna (36" oblong) and transceiver are very awkward to store and manipulate aboard a vehicle. But the killer reason has to do with the enormous energy that a transceiver must emit to "hit" the communications satellite hundreds of miles above earth. There is a legitimate concern about the degree of stray radiation that a Dashboarder might absorb in the process of manually targeting the antenna. In addition, a device emitting so much energy could inadvertently cause problems

Starband is now being targeted exclusively at residential customers at fixed locations. DirecWay is primarily focused on the enterprise and small business sector with some limited focus on telecommuters and some residential users through affiliations with Earthlink and Pegasus. DirecPC, which provides download by satellite and upload by land line, is still in the mix for fixed locations.

An interesting wrinkle is the expected merger of Hughes Network Systems and Echostar slated for mid-2002. The resulting firm is expected to use the Echostar moniker and to keep both brands (DirectTV / DirecPC / DirecWay and Dish Network / Starband) in business and competing for customers in the same markets.

There is a partial solution on the horizon. It is called "TracNet" and will be managed and promoted by KVH Industries. KVH supplies "in-motion" TV satellite receivers to both marine and terrestrial users. The official launch of the service is still a couple of months away, but preliminary pricing is expected to be around $6000 for the receiver dish, wireless server and supporting software. The monthly service fee will be around $80 and there will be additional per-minute charges depending on the mode of upload. The price may seem high, but according to Jim Dodez, Vice-President of Marketing with KVH, "Such a system could deliver always-on TV and Internet access nearly everywhere in North America."

TracNet will provide one-way broadband Internet service with download speeds in the neighborhood of 150 to 400K. The upload leg will be enabled at rate of 2.4 to 33.5K by either the use of a land line, a digital cellular modem, or a low-data-rate satellite service like Globalstar or Inmarsat. The coordination of the up and down legs would be handled by an on-board wireless server. The wireless server would use 802.11(b) networks to deliver content from the server to the on-board laptops and other data devices.

The product that KVH will be rolling out in early 2002 will be encased in a TracVision dome. They are also working on a phased array configuration that will be about six inches tall and allow installation on regular passenger vehicles or SUV's. This phased array receiver should be ready by late summer. It seems that inexpensive connectivity is still in the realm of the holy grail but this is a crucial first step in achieving Internet connectivity for Dashboarders.

Mark Sedenquist
Las Vegas, Nevada
November 12, 2001