August 2000 Bulletin

LEO will put wireless into hyperdrive

Low earth orbit satellite system will make DSL look like a slowpoke

By Howard Mevis

While the technologies, cable modems and digital subscriber line (DSL), slug it out for connecting your home or office to the Internet, there are new ‘wireless’ technologies on the horizon that will change the way we access the Internet. So, just about the time you get settled in with your cable modem at home and your DSL connection at the office, perhaps you might want to begin considering how wireless computing might impact your access to information.

Hand-held revolution

More and more of us are using hand-held computers or personal digital assistants (PDAs) to support our information management needs. Hand-held computing is growing rapidly. If you are not using a hand-held computer, you may have read about it or seen a colleague using a PDA. Most likely, you were intrigued.

Though still in their infancy, wireless services let you send and receive e-mail, pages and even access Web-based information with a handheld device when you are away from a telephone line. You’ll have better luck with wireless coverage if you live and work in major metropolitan areas.

Accessing a computer network with a hand-held is now possible with special accessories designed for specific PDAs. To communicate using a hand-held, you have to run applications built for the device. A desktop application will not work. Most devices come with dial-up and terminal-emulation software, and many include software to send e-mail and browse the Web.

The primary reason for using a handheld computer is to keep track of your schedule, to-do list and contacts. Some orthopaedic surgeons are using hand-held computers to store patient information gained during an encounter. The Academy will release a hand-held format version of the Orthopaedic Code X software in 2001 to help you complete your coding requirements.

PDAs vary widely in the number of entries and amount of detail they handle, but all let you synchronize with a conventional PC to keep the data on both devices up-to-date. The major benefit promised and delivered is that you won’t be stuck without current important information.

Wireless via satellite

Today, satellites orbit the earth as relays for video and audio programming, as well as data information. These satellites orbit in a geo-synchronous position rotating at the same speed as the earth. With the increasing demand for broadband access to the Internet, a new generation of satellite technology is needed. Low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites are being developed. These satellites are designed to circle the globe once every two hours at altitudes under 1,500 kilometers. The lower altitude reduces the time needed to transmit signals from the originating station to the receiver on earth. Special antennas will be needed to track and communicate with the LEO satellites.

Ground-based ‘wired’ technology has limitations. DSL signals deteriorate based on distance traveled and cable modem speeds are reduced if too many households in a neighborhood log on at the same time. A broadband satellite system will not have these shortcomings. The only real challenger to satellites is fiber to the home/office and the expense of this technology is too steep by comparison. A well-designed LEO satellite system will provide voice, data, and video for tens of millions of subscribers—all at the same high-speed connection.

With the need for speed increasing exponentially each year, satellites are well positioned to serve the demand for rapid Internet downloads. Imagine viewing a streaming video at three to six times faster than a cable modem, and up to 12 times faster than DSL.

When will we begin to see the rise of LEO satellites providing a better broadband technology? Although discussions of broadband communications tend to focus on technological and economic issues, the most important driver behind satellite services may well be the competitive aspirations of large telecommunications companies. Several companies are moving beyond the design stage and have announced plans to launch satellite systems in 2002, with broadband Internet services becoming available the next year.

Howard Mevis is director of the Academy’s department of electronic media, evaluation and course operations

Computer Link welcomes suggestions about future topics for the column and questions about the use of computers in orthopaedic practice. Send your suggestions to the Bulletin at AAOS, 6300 N. River Rd., Rosemont, Ill. 60018.

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