Trends in Satellite Tele-education

by Dr. Joseph N. Pelton, Dean, International Space University, Srasbourg, France

The Start of Satellite Tele-education

The launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, occurred in October 1957. This was quickly followed by the launch of a series of telecommunications satellites such as Score, Courier IB, Echo, Relay, Telstar, and Syncom. These and other experimental satellites demonstrated that voice, data and television could be sent reliably between ground antenna systems. These experiments led to the deployment of three operational systems in 1965 namely the Russian Molniya domestic satellite system, the U.S. Initial Defense Satellite Communications System, and the INTELSAT global satellite system's Early Bird. From the very start of satellite communications services television transmissions were featured. These included exchanges between heads of state, the Lemans automobile race, and important social services such as surgeons in Geneva, Switzerland observing open heart surgery in Houston, Texas by Dr. Debekey.

In the ensuing years through the late 1960s and the 1970s efforts to devise satellite technology that could bring cost effective satellite tele-education services to rural and remote areas at cost-effective rates continued. These efforts included the Applications Technology Satellite series 1 through 6 that showed many different new satellite applications including satellite tele-education. The ATS-6 with a very large unfurlable antenna demonstrated rural satellite video education services in the Appalachia region of the U.S. as well as in Brazil and India. The Communications Technology Satellite (with the Hermes satellite designed and built in Canada and with NASA providing the launch) also showed how very high powered satellites could broadcast educational video to rural areas using only very small aperture terminals.

In the 1980s satellite based tele-education began to evolve on a global scale. The Indian INSAT system, building on the positive SITE experiments conducted with the ATS-6 was deployed starting with the INSAT 1B in 1983. Now with the INSAT 2 series, built the Indian Space Organization, deployed there are four satellites providing television based education to tens of thousands of villages. In Indonesia the Palapa satellite system also began offering television education in the 1980s as well. International programming as well as local programming developed by Television Radio Indonesia (TVRI) provided service to sites on Indonesia most heavily populated islands.

In areas such as the Caribbean and the South Pacific operating networks based on satellite operations have been in operation for over 20 years through such networks as UDIWITE (University of the West Indies) Peacesat (University of the South Pacific).

Project SHARE

One of the key stimulants to the spread of satellite communications came from the INTELSAT sponsored Satellites for Health and Rural Education (SHARE) project that took place from 1985 to 1987. Free satellite capacity was made available to test rural and remote educational and tele-health projects all over the world. Most dramatically, China, under the auspices of INTELSAT's Project Share began its national education television program in this manner. It began with only a few dozen stations and a few thousand students. Today this network has over 90,000 antennas in operation in all parts of China and reaches over 3 million students.

In East Africa and in the Caribbean tele-medicine tests were carried out using only a single satellite voice circuit to connect the Memorial Hospital of Newfoundland to remote hospital and clinics. The same circuit was used for a seven hour shift to link Canada with Kenya and Uganda and then for another seven hour shift to link Canada with Caribbean nations.

Current and Future Trends

In Canada and the United States over 100 different satellite tele-education systems are now in operation. These include state and province owned and operated networks, commercial networks that range from primary schooling to graduate level programming. Some projects such as the Mind-Extension University of the Jones Intercable reaches into over 20 million homes via cable television. Others such as the National Technological University (NTU) combines college course produced by over 40 different universities and also provides short courses and corporate training. European use of satellite tele-education has been less extensive than in North America simply because extensive terrestrial telecommunications networks are widely available and cover population centers and educational institutions quite well.

Project LEARN

One of the latest initiatives to seek to stimulate new directions and experiments in satellite tele-education is called Project LEARN. This stands for Local Education and Resource Network and its objective is to stimulate a wide range of tele-education projects in diverse subjects, in a number of countries and with alternative technical and operations approaches. It is anticipated that after the various trials, tests and demonstrations, and projects are completed that an assessment team will evaluate the successes, shortcoming, and key lessons learned and prepare a international report of these findings. To date projects in India, China, Russia, Korea, and the U.S. have been initially identified for detailed planning. It is intended that the final report and evaluation will be published and circulated by the International Telecommunication Union as well as presented in electronic form as an international web site. Specific objectives are to test and evaluate:

  1. broad band versus narrow band tele-education systems
  2. effectiveness of tele-education at various age levels
  3. ability to combine rural communications systems with tele-education systems
  4. effectiveness of combined tele-education and tele-medicine projects
  5. effectiveness of satellite, terrestrial and hybrid systems in meeting tele-education objectives.
  6. identify typical gaps or problems in tele-education projects such as in the areas of training of educators and technicians, program development, terminal equipment, high cost of establishing or maintaining ground systems, technical standards, etc.
  7. impact of tele-education systems on quality of life and general improvements to society (these areas are admittedly extremely difficult to measure).

These projects are planned for 1998 and 1999 and the final report for Project LEARN is anticipated in the year 2000.

There are today a growing number of test, demonstrations, and even commercial projects in tele-education. It is hoped that Project LEARN and perhaps other parallel global test and evaluation programs can share more broadly and effectively the results of these tele-education tests.


Today there are some 50 satellite carriers who have deployed some 200 GHz of satellite capacity in orbit, representing over 200 satellites. The next decade may well see the number of satellite carriers growing to 100 to 150 carriers and the total amount of satellite capacity (as now proposed) could grow to 2000 GHz. This explosion of satellite capacity in low, medium and geosynchronous satellite orbit should make a tremendous amount of new space segment capacity that could be used for tele-education and tele-medicine purposes. Further this sudden expansion of capacity should also reduce the capital and operating costs for tele-education systems. Systematic planning efforts, like Project LEARN are needed now to exploit fully the new capacity that will be increasingly available in the next few years.

Originally posted at the Website: by Tina Evans Greenwood, Library Instruction Coordinator, Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado 81301, e-mail:, and last updated May 7, 1999. By her permission the whole Website has been archived here at the University of Tennessee server directory of GLOSAS Chair Dr. Takeshi Utsumi from July 10, 2000 by Steve McCarty in Japan.