More than three months after two devastating hurricanes ravaged the United States territory of Puerto Rico, millions of people on the island celebrated the Christmas and New Year holidays without electricity and with many complications related to getting economic relief. One of the solutions that the federal government made available to Puerto Ricans could not be used due to technical issues that required data connectivity.
Electronic Benefits Transfer cards have been effectively used in the wake of natural disasters since Hurricane Katrina in 2005; however, those EBT cards depend on connections to major payment networks such as Visa and MasterCard. In Puerto Rico, the electrical and data infrastructure have been so decimated that EBT cards could not be accepted at grocery stores or even banks because the point-of-sale terminals, essentially credit card readers, could not connect to the internet.
Satellite M2M has been one of the most sensible solutions proposed in Puerto Rico to enable POS terminals for the purpose of activating EBT cards. Machine-to-machine connectivity by means of satellite in Puerto Rico started off with three special receivers that are about the size of a tablet computer. While the data network itself is complex, installation of these devices is simple, and they can certainly meet the connectivity and compliance requirements to accept EBT card payments.
The Last Mile Challenge in Developing Countries
Prior to the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico enjoyed broadband internet access across most communities. Even though this island presents challenging topographic conditions to extend fiber optic networks to remote villages, 3G and 4G connectivity solved the issue known as last mile.
In large developing countries, the last mile problem is more pronounced since internet service providers realize that they cannot derive much profit from rural and remote areas. Even wireless networks require cell tower infrastructure that is difficult to install when reaching the last mile point.
The Satellite Internet Advantage
The aforementioned satellite solution in Puerto Rico can be used to overcome the last mile issue in developing countries. As previously explained, the terrestrial equipment is easy to install and does not demand extensive energy use. Since 2013, tech firms such as O3b Networks have been conducting space missions to augment satellite constellations aimed at providing internet connectivity to regions of the world where the last mile issue is more challenging.
Small Business and Education Through Satellite Internet
After decades of internet connectivity in developing nations such as Costa Rica and Uruguay, research studies show that overcoming the last mile issue translates into socioeconomic development in terms of education and small business activity. While the capital cities of those two nations have enjoyed gradual development thanks to broadband access, their remote and rural areas lagged behind. In recent years, internet connectivity in remote villages has enabled schools to access educational materials while small business owners have been able to accept electronic payments and use online banking; as a result, these formerly disadvantaged areas are now catching up to the rest of their nations.
Even though satellite internet connections have been around for many years, issues related to cost and latency have prevented widespread use. Thankfully, these issues are being surmounted at a rapid pace, enough to reach developing countries where remote areas are in need of improving their educational and small business activities.
The key in making satellite internet an affordable reality for developing nations is to take advantage of low Earth orbit constellations, and this is exactly what aerospace companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Horizon have been working on in recent years. Now that space missions are no longer in the exclusive purview of governments, satellite internet will finally become a global reality, and the first order of business should be to connect the three billion people around the world who still lack access to broadband connections in the 21st century.
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