With so much teaching and learning taking place online, it’s important all schools and kura in Aotearoa New Zealand have access to a reliable internet connection. Now that satellite technology has become a more readily available option, it offers a potential solution. This cutting-edge technology delivers internet via satellite rather than physical fibre or cable connections. It can be a game-changer for schools and kura that struggle with connection due to their remote locations. Here’s how it works:

Satellite: the basics 

How is satellite internet different from a standard cable or terrestrial connection? The technology works a bit like satellite television, using a network of satellites orbiting Earth to deliver internet service rather than relying on a cable, fibre or terrestrial signal.

Satellite services start with an internet service provider (ISP) sending a group of satellites into space. Once in place, the satellites orbit continually around the earth, either in low or high-orbit. Starlink, probably the best-known satellite provider, has over 5,000 small satellites sitting in low earth orbit (LEO) and plans to launch 12,000 more. With thousands more from other providers, there are a huge number of satellites orbiting the earth, creating a vast network for internet delivery.

When you use satellite internet, your ISP routes the signal through the closest satellite, and a receiver dish picks up that signal. The receiver dish will usually be mounted on your roof or another spot with an unobstructed view of the sky. The dish looks similar to a smaller version of a Sky or satellite TV dish and connects to a modem, which ‘translates’ the incoming signal to deliver a functional internet connection.

From that point, Wi-Fi and internet can be used as they would under any other type of connection. Generally, all you need to access satellite internet is a place for a receiver, electricity and a clear view of the sky.

Can the weather have an impact on satellite internet?

Satellite internet can be a significant step up for remote schools and kura with internet connectivity problems, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its limitations. During bad storms or heavy snow, the amount of moisture in the air can impact how easily the signal can get from the satellite through the atmosphere to the receiver dish. On rare occasions, this can result in slow speeds, or if the weather is extreme enough, a temporarily lost connection. Thankfully, this will only last as long as the bad weather does; as soon as skies return to normal the connection will return as well.

It’s not just weather on earth that can have an impact. The weather in space can, on rare occasions, cause issues as well. There has been a lot of talk about solar flares and their potential to knock out satellite internet. A solar flare is a burst of radiation generated by the sun, which causes electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere. While experts note that solar flares can affect satellite internet, modern satellites can shield themselves from these events, temporarily shutting down to avoid taking damage from the flare and then restarting once the event has passed. This results in a temporary loss of connection, but these usually last for a very short period until the satellite restarts. Solar flares are a fascinating phenomenon (and a potential research subject for interested ākonga), but they’re not a reason to avoid satellite internet.

Are there any other drawbacks?

Latency is the slight lag in service as a site or video loads – the result of a message zipping from your computer to a satellite several kilometres above the earth and back again. The good news? The way schools and kura use the internet means latency is unlikely to be a major issue. The tiny lag is generally only noticed by people playing high-speed online games, not those loading learning websites or watching educational videos. The problem is also more common when your internet relies on a high-orbit satellite network – low-orbit satellites are close enough to minimise the latency issue.

What does satellite mean for schools? 

Satellite internet delivers a high-quality connection for selected schools in remote locations, which means faster access, more teaching and resource options, and less frustration for ākonga and kaiako.

Here’s how Reno Skipper, kaiako and kura tumuaki at the remote Northland Kura Kaupapa of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngāringaomatariki, puts it:

On many occasions, we weren’t even able to mark the morning roll, or we might have only been able to have one or two computers on in a classroom at the same time. The staff were teaching and trying to bring in different ideas and resources, but they couldn’t be accessed because of poor internet connectivity.

With their satellite internet connection in place, Reno’s school can now maximise the value of its digital resources and give their ākonga more learning options.

We’re now able to use the technology to its full extent. We’ve purchased subscriptions to maths programmes that we previously weren’t able to use. Even in the space of a month, it’s made a huge difference to how we teach, and there’s been a noticeable improvement in the kids’ engagement. They’re now able to take full ownership of their own learning,” he explains. Check out the video here.

Satellite internet might seem futuristic, but it’s already a reality for some schools. N4L has helped some of Aotearoa’s most remote schools get the full benefit of digital learning tools through our Satellite for Schools programme, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Education. We’ve switched almost 40 remote schools and kura to satellite – and their ākonga are reaping the benefits.

Maximising the value of online learning 

Like all of N4L’s services, Satellite for Schools is about helping schools and kura use digital tools to their full potential. Using cutting-edge satellite technology, we’re providing some of Aotearoa’s most isolated schools with faster, more reliable internet access. The result? Kaiako have access to online tools and resources, ākonga get to learn in new ways, and schools can connect with the world around them.

Whilst a great solution, a satellite connection is generally suited for remote schools and kura that don’t have access to a reliable terrestrial connection. For less remote schools, a traditional high-speed terrestrial-based connection is still the preferred method for internet delivery; these connections can supply higher bandwidth, low latency internet. If you have any queries about your connection, please get in touch.

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