By creating the world's largest satellite-based frame-relay intranet, the 140-nation Intelsat consortium expects to prove once and for all that Internet protocol is compatible with geostationary satellites.
As the race to deliver faster, more reliable Internet access heats up, wireless - and satellite services in particular - is shaping up as a top contender. Why? Because it can reach a greater part of the globe for a fraction of the cost of wired options.
One estimate says that linking every home in the world to the Internet through fiber optic cable would cost $300 billion. To do the same with global satellite coverage would cost about $9 billion.
"The next big market is high-speed, broadband data," said David Benton, a spokesman for Loral Space & Communications Ltd., New York, which is building the 48-satellite Globalstar system that will operate in low earth orbit. Complete telecommunications, paging, fax and position-locating services will be available in 1999.
Backers of the giant Teledesic system, a planned 840-satellite constellation, claim that satellites operating in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the equator - such as those operated by Intelsat - can cause delays and other connection problems when linked to the Internet. Low earth orbit satellites, on the other hand, operate at 435 miles above the equator, and, LEO operators say, don't have the same problems.
However, Intelsat officials claim international Internet traffic has been successfully carried by its geostationary satellites since the Internet was a Department of
Defense initiative called the ARPAnet. Currently, Intelsat is carrying 80 megabits of Internet traffic, according to its president, Irving Goldstein.
And Intelsat, the world's largest provider of satellite communications, is using its international reach to launch a mammoth, global intranet to set the record straight on the technology. Intelsat is now converting its current analog system, currently used by 200 countries, to a digital 64-kilobits-per-second, frame-relay network that can carry both voice and data.
"The objective is to dispel the myth that [Internet protocol and geostationary satellites] are incompatible," said John Stevenson, manager of communications engineering support and R&D at Intelsat.
Intelsat customers, including Telia in Sweden, France Telecom, and Comsat here in the United States, will all be able to communicate with each other over the intranet by June. Intelsat plans to come out with specific offerings, which are expected to include electronic mail and multicasting or push technology, in May.
Kirkland, Wash.-based Teledesic, the brainchild of cellular pioneer Craig McCaw and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, has led the charge against using geostationary satellites for Internet access.
Teledesic officials claim that geostationary satellites have at least a one-half second delay that can cause havoc with an Internet connection. The first Teledesic satellites are slated for launch in 2000; the system is to begin service in 2002. A Teledesic spokesman said the company's position is best described in a white paper on its World Wide Web page, http://
Another LEO satellite project, Iridium, run by Motorola, recently delayed the launch of its first three satellites. Iridium is expected to have a constellation of 66 satellites, and plans to begin offering telephone, fax, paging and other services in 1998.
Stevenson countered that some of the LEO satellite proponents are trying to create a false image because they are farther behind. "The LEOs are trying to raise money. They're starting from scratch, so they won't come online anytime soon," he said.
If the intranet is successful and proves geostationary satellites and Internet protocol are a good match, "it would steal a whole lot of Teledesic's mindshare," said John Pike, director of the CyberStrategy program at the Federation of American Scientists, Washington.
"This would further add to my skepticism of Teledesic," said Pike, "It runs directly against the Teledesic folks. They've been saying you need LEOs even with [asynchronous transfer mode]," he said.
Intelsat's move should also be considered not only as a vote of confidence for this Internet access solution, but also for Intelsat's chance to be privatized, said Pike. The global intranet could be parlayed into a lucrative commercial offering.
Intelsat for years has been rumored to be going private. Executives are scheduled to discuss the possibility of establishing a commercial subsidiary of Intelsat at a meeting April 14-15 in Washington.
Satellite telecommunications service is considered by industry watchers as a favored way to beef up Internet access in part because it can reach underdeveloped countries that will probably never be completely wired even for telephone use.
Federal Communications Commissioner Susan Ness said recently that the satellite communications market should thrive like never before, especially now that the World Trade Organization agreement, signed last month, will open international markets.
"Satellites are the key to globalization - there is no relationship between cost and distance," Ness said during a speech in Washington. "In fact, in some markets, they may provide the only communications solution."
Ness estimated that linking every home in the world to the Internet through fiber optic cable would cost $300 billion. To do the same with global satellite coverage would cost about $9 billion, she said.