Satellite services broaden training choices

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.

Instead

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.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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