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RBGAN: the Next Step Toward Portable Broadband
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by Gregg Swanson
Posted: 4/15/2004

Over the past year, HumaniNet has assisted over 20 humanitarian and missionary organizations in procuring and testing a new way to communicate from remote areas: the Regional Broadband Global Area Network, or RBGAN, introduced by InMarSat.

This satellite terminal (also called a satellite modem) makes it possible to get Internet access, within the coverage area, at a speed of 144 kilobits per second, more than twice that of a standard dialup connection. One user in Africa described it as “lightning fast.” It is pictured here with a laptop and an Iridium phone:

The terminal weighs only 3.3 pounds, is reasonably rugged, and is well engineered. It is pictured here, connected to a laptop. An Iridium phone is shown to the right. To communicate by voice, a satellite phone such as Iridium is required, since RBGAN transmits and receives only data.

RBGAN coverage
Reports from the field
Cost
RBGAN and VSAT
Tips on Ordering and Using the RBGAN
Bandwidth Cost Details
Future improvements

RBGAN coverage

The RBGAN coverage area currently includes Western Europe, the Middle East, Central and South Asia as far east as Bangladesh, and the northern half of Africa (to include all of West Africa and as far south as Kenya and northern Congo).

By early 2005, following the launch of new satellites, the system will cover all global land areas. The expanded system will offer true broadband connectivity: over 430 kilobits per second.

Reports from the field

In keeping with our mission, HumaniNet has facilitated purchase and lease of RBGAN terminals for deployment with humanitarian and missionary teams in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. We have followed up with all users ask about their experience and system performance.
Here are some reports we have received from field users, all in remote areas with minimal infrastructure:

  • From World Vision, following their response to the earthquake in Bam, Iran, in December 2003: “We went into Iran with our RBGAN satellite terminal, and eventually most of the team there in Bam was hooked up to that device in order to communicate not only for media and marketing purposes, but also for management purposes. The RBGAN was used to send many high-resolution photos as well as sitreps (situation reports) and other management reports. We were able to raise significant funds for the disaster because of this equipment (over $2 million). “
  • From Africa: "The RBGAN continues to work well. In fact, our colleagues in the nearby major center have experienced a general phone service disruption this past week and we here have been able to carry on communications as usual."
  • From Iraq: “After installing the software and going up on the roof, within five minutes I was on the Internet. Wow! Was that quick and easy. This will be a big help when we’re without power and on the road at job sites. ”
  • From West Africa: “We have been very pleased with the billing on the modems. The detail and the relatively low cost considering what is not available in country makes it very worth it.”
  • On instant messaging, from West Africa: “We have been able to use MSN Instant Messenger on the RBGAN modem without problems and it really is quite economical in terms of bytes used. We chatted with our family in Senegal and in the U.S. at the same time.”

Cost

One of the surprising things about RBGAN is the value-price relationship. Until now, data terminals with speeds of 64kbps cost $6000 and up. Humanitarian organizations can purchase RBGAN, with accessories and shipment costs, for less than $1400.

Usage fees are charged by the megabytes of data transmitted and received – currently less than $10 per megabyte. There is also a monthly access fee. This is economical for email messaging and transfer of medium-sized files, but not for extensive Web surfing. For example, a 1 kilobyte email costs one cent, and a 100 kilobyte file costs a dollar (US) to send or receive. For additional details on bandwidth fees, see our RBGAN Bandwidth Tips page.

We recently were contacted by a major organization that had just spent $2500 for a satellite phone, far more than then should have paid. They now regret that they did not contact HumaniNet first. Our partnering service providers offer significant discounts and are experienced in supporting humanitarian field teams.

Please email us at info@humaninet.org for details on pricing and shipping, as well as suitability for your mission.

Future improvements

In 2005, Inmarsat (the service operator for RBGAN) will launch additional satellites for global coverage. The global system will be known as BGAN, or Broadband Global Area Network. It will deliver significantly increased bandwidth – an increase from 144 kbps to 432 kbps (kilobits per second).

For more information, please email us at info@humaninet.org.

 

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