Look to the stars
BY SARAH PARKES
College students in some of Russia's most isolated regions are now getting access to modern interactive education thanks to a high-tech satellite system and aggressive project management.
You don't need to be one of Russia's brightest students to know that its land mass, which spans a staggering nine time zones, boasts the largest latitudinal coverage of any nation in the world. But while geographically impressive, the country's sheer size is a harsh reality for hundreds of thousands of youngsters seeking higher education in Russia's remoter regions. Forget university lectures, student tutorials, chats in the common room or even the Internet—for many hopeful young professionals, college education has meant out-of-date tapes and dry textbooks, pored over in isolation.
Now, in a bold new initiative designed to ensure all its pupils get equal access to its teaching expertise and benefit from the latest learning resources, the Moscow-based Modern Institute for the Humanities (MUH) is using satellite technology to bridge the vast distances between regional campuses via a state-of-the-art Internet protocol-based Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) project that will put teachers into classrooms across seven time zones.
The system is being designed and delivered by Gilat, an Israel-based VSAT specialist with an impressive record of implementing communications and distance education systems in some of the world's most remote and hostile regions. Consisting of specialist system engineers and software developers, the Israel-based project team was led by Arie Rozichner, who worked closely with representatives from MUH's management and technology department in Moscow to ensure the university's unique requirements were matched by the very best available technology.
Russian students in remote regions will gain access to higher education through a system of IP-based Very Small Aperture Terminal satellites.
One of the largest universities in the world, MUH has more than 145,000 students and a network of regional campuses stretching from Kalingrad on the Baltic sea to Sakhalin nearly 5,000 miles eastwards, just north of Japan. The new satellite system, which will comprise a primary Skystar 360E VSAT hub in Moscow and an initial 155 remote receiver sites, represents Russia's first large-scale technology-based distance education program. When complete, it will deliver fast, reliable Internet access, interactive multimedia-based teaching modules and real-time lectures and tutorials over video conferencing links to students in hundreds of isolated communities across the country.
“The project got off to a great start late last year with a full site survey which enabled us to scope out the full range of tasks and project phases. These included a list of building modifications to the area destined to house the VSAT equipment at MUH's Moscow headquarters, electrical rewiring and cabling plans and bespoke software interfaces to existing audio-visual equipment, as well as logistical elements like equipment import, warehousing, licensing and shipping to 155 separate sites,” Mr. Rozichner says.
From there, the team prepared a comprehensive implementation plan detailing tasks and timelines, with delivery and installation penciled to begin in Q2 2004 and the entire network set to go live across the country in September for the start of the new academic year. However, the ministry responsible for issuing equipment licenses underwent substantial restructuring in the lead up to the March presidential election, effectively putting some tasks on ice for several months.
“It was a totally unexpected hitch,” Mr. Rozichner says. “Since almost all equipment had to be imported, we had no choice but to re-jig our priorities, moving ahead fast on the on-site construction tasks, actively working our local contacts to try to speed equipment through the tangle of red tape, and revising the deployment schedule to prioritize key sites and boost the planned installation targets by increasing the staffing budget for that phase.”
In a complex project like this involving multinational, multi-disciplinary teams, the importance of local knowledge can't be over-stressed.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, equipment was built to plan in Gilat's labs, ready for testing and integration. As soon as customs clearance was obtained, the fully redundant VSAT hub was installed at the MUH Moscow campus, wired to the video room, and commissioned for service—a process that involved setting up two remote sites, installing all operating software and running a comprehensive battery of tests to verify and fine-tune system function.
With most of the rest of the equipment finally on-site and warehoused in Russia by early Q3, the final project phase—full roll-out to all remote sites— began in earnest in August, comprising assembly, configuration, testing and dispatch to branch campuses hundreds or thousands of miles away.
“Adopting a more aggressive deployment schedule to make up for lost time meant we were still able to meet our September deadline for top-priority sites,” Mr. Rozichner says. With at least 50 remote sites being connected each month, the remainder of the initial 155 campuses are set to come online between now and the end of the year, he says, adding that university staff are developing new online learning programs and multimedia applications with a view to eventually linking all 600+ remote campuses to the system.
“In a complex project like this involving multinational, multidisciplinary teams, the importance of local knowledge can't be overstressed,” Mr. Rozichner says. The implementation called for exceptional levels of technical and logistical expertise, not just to work around problems, but to anticipate them.” Once installation is complete, Gilat team members will continue to provide full 24-hour support to MUH, servicing any problems that may arise in the operation of the network.
“In the end, it comes down to experience. VSAT's power to bring first-world communications to remote communities has made it extremely popular in the places normal communications systems don't reach, so our teams are used to working in difficult conditions and coming up with creative solutions to unexpected problems. Our project managers know that this knowledge base is a key element of our success, so the challenges of each new project are simply viewed as opportunities to further enhance our advantage.” PM
Sarah Parkes is a freelance journalist with more than 12 years of experience in the telecom and IT sectors. Based in France, she is a regular contributor to a number of U.S. and European publications, including London's Financial Times.
OCTOBER 2004 | PM NETWORK