Distance learning using VSATs in the Solomon Islands
In 2004, a project was initiated to provide distance learning centres in the Solomon Islands. This project, established under the EU education sector programme, was initiated following trials using email in 2002. In the trials, ten students (with two supervisors) studied for a university course module, sending and receiving papers by email; the trials were judged to have improved turnaround and tutor-student communications, but suggested that a larger project would need better connectivity.
By 2007, there were nine distance learning centres in special buildings attached to schools. Each centre has a short wave radio, a VSAT, six computers, a printer, a scanner and solar panels; the cost of equipment and installation of these centres is approximately 50,000 USD. These costs would now be significantly less with using cheaper VSATs (coverage has improved), fewer solar panels (the power consumption of computers is lower) and printing costs which are now reduced by using dot matrix printers that offer high quality printing (rivalling many ink jet prints), very low power consumption and low ink costs.
Each distance learning centre has a full time supervisor (often a former teacher with computing skills) who maintains equipment, provides basic computer training for users, and assists students with using the equipment and IP applications such as collaboration tools for distance learning. The VSAT receives course materials from education service providers in the capital city or elsewhere. VSATs in the distance learning centres, share a 256 kb/s downlink and 128 kb/s uplink satellite connection that cost 4,000 USD per month.
Distance learning centres need to be used heavily if they are to be commercially viable; making revenues exceed running costs is more difficult for them than for rural email stations. Intended primarily for reinforcing classroom learning, training teachers, and providing formal and vocational courses, distance learning centres are also open to the public every day as Internet cafés. The strategy for sustainable operation relies partly on partnerships that also contribute to the educational objectives; for instance, a bank branch in a distance learning centre would perform electronic funds transfer over IP (thereby avoiding electronic funds transfer using phone calls) and also be involved in financial training.
A distance learning centre has a management committee that includes members from the school, the school board, the community and various sectors of society. The management committee works with the supervisor in partnership with an NGO (PFNet) and the Ministry of Education.
The incumbent network operator has a monopoly, though its position is currently being reviewed. The incumbent agreed to service the distance learning network as long as bandwidth and equipment were purchased from the provider (though it was merely acting as a reseller). The provider then became concerned that the distance learning network supported peer-to-peer VoIP and might also be used for transactions in bank branches collocated with distance learning centres; both cases would undermine its monopoly by replacing long distance calls by local calls (in the capital) or even by no calls on its network.
Source: The Impact of ICT on Rural Development in Solomon Islands: the PFNet Case (Anand Chand and others, USP, March 2005), http://www.usp.ac.fj/jica/ict_research/documents/pdf_files/pfnet_report.pdf, The Distance Learning Centres Project (David Leeming and others, PFNet, August 2007), http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb/DLCP/downloads/PacINET-DLCP-presentations.zip, and discussions with David Leeming.