Satellite services broaden training choices
- By Brian Robinson
- Apr 10, 2000
Broadband satellite services could take on an important role in government
distance-learning programs, particularly as technologies such as desktop
video communications become viable for training employees.
That's the reasoning behind a slew of contracts awarded during the past
few months by the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service.
The contracts collectively provide for a wide choice of commercial fixed,
mobile and broadcast satellite services and equipment. The eighth and final
contract in the series was awarded late last month to ATT.
of designing blanket contracts to cover every conceivable need — as it might
have done in the past — FTS went out of its way to get input from agencies
on the new contracts.
"They called us and let us know what they wanted from these contracts,"
said April Ramey, director of GSA's Innovation Center. "They are a combination
of the demand that's already out there for distance learning and what people
think will be in demand in the future."
Jolly Holden, chief learning strategist for satellite services vendor
Spacenet Inc., said the GSA satellite services contracts will help introduce
the government to IP video and the delivery of video to the desktop. But
there is still a learning curve associated with it.
"IP will be the only way to go in the future," said Holden, who is also
president of the U.S. Distance Learning Association. "However, IP video
is not well-known to the distance-learning fraternity right now, and broadband
satellite is still a fairly esoteric subject. The Internet itself is still
a relatively low-bandwidth environment."
New satellite services and IP can coexist, particularly when the need
is to deliver high-bandwidth video. However, in the new world of digital
technologies and the Internet, satellite communication must share the limelight
with fiber-optic, cable and copper telephone lines.
"You can define distance learning in a variety of different ways," said
Kenneth Johnson, director of the Defense Department's Satellite Education
Network. "Some people think it now means the PC and the Internet, though
that's just a part of the deal. We now try to incorporate several different
technologies into the hybrid networks we use today."
Some of the training the DOD offers, for example, incorporates paper-based
instruction, followed by satellite broadcasts, PC simulations using CD-ROMs
and then interactive satellite conferences, Johnson said. World Wide Web-based
instruction also is becoming a part of that mix, and he expects it to proliferate
in the next year or so.
Although satellites "are not a cheap thing to get into," they can show
quick returns, said Robbie Smith, assistant director of the Energy Department's
Central Training Academy, Albuquerque, N.M. The academy's investment in
satellites paid for itself in the first year of operation, Smith said.
Satellite technology has its advantages, she said. It has been proven
effective for distance learning and because of its flexibility — it can
be used for video, voice and data links, which can be originated using an
agency's own studio or someone else's — it should be an important part of
the training media mix.
Crunch time will come quickly. Agencies have to transition from using
the FTS 2000 telecommunications contract, which included the old set of
satellite services, by the end of September. Many agencies still don't use
distance learning to train employees, but an executive order issued in January
1999 will push them in that direction. It instructs agencies to use advanced
training technologies to help federal employees upgrade their skills.
"With the infusion of Web-based training techniques and an "e-everything'
mentality, philosophies are changing about the delivery systems that are
needed for distance learning," Johnson said. Satellite technology, she added,
"will remain an integral part of the mix."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.