Tech Features

Satellite Schools

For rural areas where connectivity is rare or completely absent, it is crucial that basic education reach the masses. The only route is learning through satellite

Education via satellite is part of numerous public programmes that extend digital teaching materials to schools situated in rural areas where terrestrial infrastructure is lacking. It helps provide equal access to education for all pupils, regardless of access to brick-and-mortar schools.

From a social point of view, new teaching practices based on digitalisation guarantee continuity of education in areas subject to depopulation, and bring obvious benefits in terms of social integration.

Ghassan Murat, Vice President Of Business Development and Strategy at Eutelsat MENA, says: “Several countries have rolled out these types of initiatives. The Mexico Conectado programme is a federal government programme led by the Mexican Ministry of Communication and Transportation that contributes to warrant citizens’ constitutional right to internet access. Satellite technology is used to cover 2% of the country’s population, namely rural communities in between 500 and 2,500 inhabitants.”

“With the support of our partners Elara and Telecomm, several Mexican schools are currently leveraging Eutelsat 113 West A and Eutelsat 117 West A’s pan-American and regional coverages to bridge the educational digital divide. Another example can be found in Europe. Implemented in 2014 and still active today, the Ecoles Connectées plan in France has connected up to 200 schools so far. It relies on Eutelsat’s satellite KA-SAT for the high-speed broadband access provided to schools.”

The evolution of education via satellite is closely linked to the diversification of the role of the internet in education. Back in the day, internet usage in classrooms was restricted to web browsing. Today, students make use of thousands of different online education tools and applications, not to mention platforms such as YouTube and streaming websites.

“This educational revolution today reaches areas where broadband connectivity via terrestrial networks is not reliable or not available at all. In these areas, the role of satellite in the education sector becomes increasingly important. In most educational network deployments, Newtec has installed VSAT equipment alongside the Newtec Dialog multiservice platform. Via the Dialog platform, broadband connectivity is delivered to schools in villages, small towns and rural areas, offering new [educational] opportunities to the widest possible audience,” says Koen Willems, Market Director for Government and Defense at Newtec.

Even in far-flung areas where it can be difficult to get all students to a central location, e-learning networks for distance learning are set up to provide access to video content, webinars, live streaming and the latest educational packages online. These networks are also used by the schools themselves for administration and internal communication, or to provide teachers with the latest online training and lesson plans, explains Willems.

So how are people getting educated in remote unconnected villages? And what are they being taught?

Murat says each country has its own specificities in terms of education and connectivity needs, depending on how and when its education system was designed and what the country’s geography is. One significant challenge shared by remote villages is the need to address multi-level students in one single classroom. Effective solutions can be implemented to overcome the educational limits of multi-classes (also known as multi-age classrooms or composite classes), a situation expected to increase due to the demographic downturn.

“One initiative has been developed in Italy, in the Basilicata region, in the framework of the project ONE CLASS! Open Network for Education carried out by the European Space Agency. Approximately 20 schools in this region have been equipped with satellite reception for video conferencing. The programme allows a student from a multi-class to follow courses of his own level, delivered remotely in a standard class using a 30Mbps connection operated on Eutelsat’s KASAT satellite,” explains Murat.

Satellite provides high-speed bi-directional internet connectivity, and in addition TV reception and voice over IP services. Further improvements can be made by creating local electronic libraries that are constantly and regularly updated.

“These could consist of videos, interactive video-based content, e-books, digital textbooks, exercise software, simulation or learning games, interactive maps, software, as well as other educational tools. The system architecture for these local electronic libraries would be based on a broadcast satellite system to distribute the above content using a push approach, combined with a broadband satellite system to ensure the point-to-point interactive connectivity,” explains Willems.

“The multiservice Dialog satellite platform acts as a hub for schools in a designated area and creates a network that brings video, voice and data right into the classroom and the students’ homes. The benefits are clear – there is better retention of both educational staff and pupils, higher graduation rates and community-wide support for children’s education.”

So what more can be done to further the sector?

Satellite relates to the infrastructure, not the educational content. However, it is important that in broadband plans for schools, the two aspects are duly coordinated. A comprehensive approach including access infrastructure, IT equipment and e-education tools is a key success factor, according to Murat.

“Another barrier for satellite adoption by schools is poor awareness among schools and local authorities of the benefits that this solution can bring, and of possible support and finance sources and capabilities. Raising more awareness and improving communications is a matter of priority to ensure the success of these initiatives and, in turn, to reduce the digital divide among schools.

“In order to address these issues, Eutelsat, jointly with Acreo and Airbus, was awarded by the European Commission, through a competitive call for tender, a study named BROSS (BROadband connectivity via Satellite for School), which is due to be accomplished by the end of the year.”

Willems believes the development of education through satellite needs continued support from governments and NGOs, as funding will always be an obstacle. However, satellite continues to be a very cost-efficient and effective way of delivering broadband, so the industry needs to do as much as it can to provide value for money to ensure it retains a key role in the future of rural broadband connectivity for both schools and communities. The continued emergence of HTS technology will play an important part, bringing decreased costs and additional opportunities for the market.

Speaking about the work Newtec has done in the field, Willems says Newtec has provided satellite broadband equipment to schools and educational institutions in a number of underserved areas where terrestrial broadband networks are either impractical or not financially viable.

“In Vanuatu, our Newtec Dialog VSAT platform is being used by satellite operator Kacific to provide an affordable broadband internet connection at speeds of up to 17Mbps to a school in Lambubu. This is delivered via a small VSAT terminal, meaning the benefits of high-speed internet connectivity can also be used by other schools and healthcare facilities in the wider local area.

“The biggest educational deployment, however, for our Newtec Dialog platform, we saw last year in Morocco, where the local service provider Nortis connects 4,000 schools. Nortis, a subsidiary to Quantis, has been awarded this contract by the Morocco Ministry of Education as part of the GENIE project. The service will provide internet access for students, while teachers will be able to benefit from courses through distance learning. The 4,000 schools were installed and connected to the Newtec Dialog platform in a record three-month timeframe,” says Willems.

Brian Jakins, Intelsat’s VP of Sales in Africa, says: “We have a distant learning project with Stellenbosch University, using Intelsat 17. They have about 20 Learning Centres in South Africa and Namibia for their university post-graduate distance learning curriculum. A lecturer in studio goes online and leads correspondence courses for students logging on. Telemedia is supporting them with broadcasting services.“

“The university also shares times at the studio with an e-learning programme they developed for schools in remote areas in the Western Cape. They started the schools programmes in 2009 with only 10 schools, and today they have over 500 schools that tune in weekly for mathematics, science, etc lessons. There are another 191 schools that they are working on connecting, and they are adding a second studio for a second channel, to cater for both the school and university programmes.”

With this high uptake of learning via satellite only set to grow, the world tomorrow will be one where not being able to go to school will no longer be an excuse. Satellite operators and educators around the world are keen on bringing schools to the masses that can’t afford high tuition fees.

Willems thinks education provides a direct path towards food security and out of poverty. It increases economic development and builds confidence, enabling people to become self-sufficient, fully contributing members of their communities.

“The widespread success of the VSAT platforms for educational satellite networks such as Newtec Dialog – particularly in rural areas – is reliant on three cornerstones: flexibility, scalability and efficiency. This means that the service offered can satisfy the needs of the schools as they change, and do so in a cost-effective manner,” concludes Willems.