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The BGAN – mobile broadband for deployed teams

By Gregg Swanson

Over the past few months, we have had an opportunity to test two of the new BGAN terminals, which were provided by Telenor Satellite Services. In summary, we can say that the Hughes terminal (pictured above with a voice handset and an Iridium satphone) and the Thrane Explorer 500 both work as advertised. The Nera WorldPro 1000 is the third terminal type (not tested).

There are three key facts concerning BGAN that will influence purchase decisions in the humanitarian community:

  1. The prices are USD 2000 – USD 2800, not including accessories.
  2. Like the RBGAN, in service since 2003, it is great for email, but for Web access it is expensive.
  3. Inmarsat has announced that they will not support RBGAN beyond end 2008.

This last point means (assuming Inmarsat does not extend RBGAN service) that current RBGAN users will have to make a decision sometime in 2008. But that is a ways off, and a number of possibilities will open up by then, including possible price reductions and new services.

First, the BGAN lineup. All deliver broadband at 384 kbps or higher, although most users will use the "standard data" option (also called "standard IP"), which is charged at approximately $5 per megabyte of data sent or received. For details, please go to the Web links provided or the Inmarsat Web site:

Nera WorldPro 1000 and 1010 – most compact ("pocket sized"). Connects to laptop with USB or Bluetooth (and Ethernet with 1010 model), costs approximately USD 2000.

Hughes 9201 – ruggedized terminal, fits in a backpack, excellent integrated WiFi. Costs approximately USD 2500. More on this terminal below.

Thrane Explorer 500 – connects to laptop with USB, Bluetooth, or Ethernet, costs approximately USD 2800.

The Standard IP option opens up the full broadband of 384 kbps (approximately DSL bandwidth). If you are the only user in your "spotbeam" region (which covers a large area) then you will have the full benefit of this bandwidth. As more users log on to the system, the bandwidth available to you is reduced – by some amount. In a disaster response, one could picture dozens of BGAN owners actively sending and receiving from the same location, which could cause significant slowing.

Streaming. At that point, the user may select a "streaming" option of 32, 64, 128, or 256 kbps. Only the Hughes has all four levels; the Nera and Thrane have fewer streaming options. When the user selects streaming, however, it gets expensive quickly – 32 kbps is over $2 per minute, 64 kbps is over $4 per minute, and 256 kbps is over $12 per minute.

The Hughes 9201 was of greatest interest because of its integrated WiFi, which worked consistently well. We tested it in June and again in October, and it was used in both of our Sim Day events.

The user downloads the Launch Pad software from CD or the Inmarsat Web site, then installs it. Anyone with Launch Pad may log on over the 9201, unless network security provisions (WEP keys) are set up by an administrator.

Setup. The setup went well, but it required tech support assistance to get past one problem, which was solved quickly with a different DNS setting. Lesson for first-time users: do not set the BGAN up in the field – do it at your home base, where you can call tech support on a cell phone while troubleshooting, in good weather and with a good connection.

The initial setup must be done by Ethernet or USB cable, after which the BGAN is ready for wireless for all users with Launch Pad. (Remember that billing will be to the account of the sim card that is in the BGAN, so if many users log on, there is no way to divide up the costs.)

After initial setup, our laptop picked up the BGAN signal easily over wireless, usually showing 11.0 Mbps speed. It seemed to be a strong wireless signal.

The sequence is important: first boot up the BGAN and laptop, aim the BGAN at the satellite, and then only after the laptop "sees" the BGAN should one open Launch Pad. When you do, it should show a connection ("Hughes 9201" is stated on the Launch Pad setup screen) and will also show signal strength.

Aiming. Aiming the BGAN at the satellite was easy. From our hilltop in Portland, Oregon, we are on the very edge of coverage for the Inmarsat AOR satellite, and the elevation was only 5 degrees, barely above the mountains to the east. Nevertheless, we got a good satellite signal every time – impressive.

One simply selects a "beeper" audio feature – a button on the 9201 – which increases in frequency as the signal is stronger. When you hear a high frequency, aiming is good.

We find that it helps to elevate the BGAN – it seems to work better atop a vehicle (see photo below). Also, when other vehicles drive by, there is no interruption to the signal. And: it is important to stay more than two meters from directly in front of the antenna, to avoid the radiating signal. Another reason to put the BGAN in a high and undisturbed location.

The 9201 requires a signal strength of 50 in order to register, which is the next step. With 50 or better, you can register over the satellite almost every time. On two occasions, we had to reboot the BGAN and laptop and try it a second time. But when the signal strength is 60 or greater, the indicator changes to "four green bars" which means the BGAN sees the satellite and is happy.

The Launch Pad will also display the battery status of the BGAN.

After registration, the user selects the "Data" tab on Launch Pad and selects the data option: standard IP, or one of the streaming modes. Launch Pad informs you when you are connected, and you are at that point on the Internet.

Multiple users. To test a second user, an NGO manager joined me. He had installed Launch Pad. When he booted his laptop, it connected immediately to the BGAN. He could then register on the satellite network, just as I had, and he checked email and some Web pages. Even more impressive: he was able to connect to his organization's intranet over VPN and use the Lotus Notes database over VPN and satellite. In a crisis response, this would be invaluable.

Speed, performance, and cost. Web page loading and email were very fast – but of course we were probably the only BGAN user in the Northwest USA. Like the RBGAN, one has to remember that loading a Web page with graphics and pictures is costly – you can surf the Web with the BGAN, and it is fast, but you will pay! There is a "Data Usage" feature, but we haven't tested it adequately yet.

We also tested VoIP using Skype, and it worked very well – good sound quality and very little delay. The cost is probably $1 - $3 per minute, using the Standard IP option, but that is a guess based on our RBGAN testing over a year ago. Skype over BGAN may have problems in dialing out to cell phones. But Skype-to-Skype was excellent.

There is an ISDN handset (pictured above) which costs about $325 and utilizes an integrated voice service, but it costs $4.50 per minute. We will test this in the next two weeks.

I am taking the Hughes 9201 to Asia, October 24 – November 4, for field testing and use in the ADRA relief simulation exercise that begins October 26. Be sure to watch the HumaniNet blog for postings from the exercise location, which will be sent over the BGAN.

If you would like more information on BGAN, please contact us at info@humaninet.org.

Two configurations for BGAN setup. In the right photo, the laptop is on top of a hardshell case that contains a BGAN emergency deployment kit, including solar blanket for power and a variety of accessories. The BGAN can be powered from a vehicle using a DC charger.

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