By midyear, more than 85% of the earth's landmass will be covered by broadband satellite that delivers DSL speed and the ability to set up a mobile office in almost any corner of the globe.
Called BGAN, short for regional Broadband Global Area Network, the service is ready for state-side use and is expected to be up and running here by the second quarter of 2006. Regional BGAN uses geostationary earth orbit satellites, launched by British company Inmarsat Inc., that travel at 22,300 miles above the earth's surface. The orbit keeps coverage on a fixed geography and beams connectivity on demand to anyone in its footprint.
Experts and BGAN providers are already singing its praises, as the satellite broadband service went live in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa in December. The target users are remote workers and companies in locations where the telecommunications infrastructure is highly unreliable or non-existent and areas where connectivity is next to impossible.
The two Inmarsat-4 satellites, launched in March and November, are capable of transmitting voice, streaming video, Small Message Service and data at DSL speed. Notebooks can be connected to small, lightweight terminals for broadband connectivity. The terminals are similar in size to a standard laptop and light enough to fit into a briefcase, a dramatic shift from Inmarsat's decade-old I-3 satellites, which required a bulky 30-pound beast of a terminal to receive satellite beams.
Frank August, Inmarsat's regional director for North America, said the service offers shared data rates of 492 Kbps with background IP. It also offers guaranteed 256 Kbps for larger files.
Another key feature of BGAN, August said, is what's on the ground, not in the sky. BGAN service was built on 3G technology, meaning users will get all the services expected with 3G from satellite.
According to Daniel Taylor, executive director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, BGAN represents cost-effective connectivity in remote locations where cellular and wireless data networks don't exist. Where traditional services, like Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), have the government and media markets locked in, regional BGAN will present a more affordable option for "a broader range of enterprises."
"We're talking about a market where the alternatives are no connectivity, extremely costly connectivity and terminals or narrowband connectivity … not available everywhere," Taylor said. "In that context, a reasonably priced DSL-speed service is relatively easy to justify. The low cost of the terminal also makes it far easier to deploy. For example, many government, law enforcement, transportation and field service environments could readily justify mounting a $500 terminal in a vehicle. Since the terminal is small and light, it's relatively easy to carry and provide a WLAN with Internet connectivity just about anywhere in the regional BGAN coverage area."
Morris Shawn, CEO and president of Roadpost Inc., an Ontario-based BGAN service provider, said the lightweight terminals make it possible for groups of remote works to have broadband access anywhere at about one-half Mbps.
Shawn said connecting is as simple as plugging a notebook into the terminal and, bingo, a middle-of-nowhere makeshift office is complete with Wi-Fi, voice, data, Bluetooth and Ethernet access. Each terminal can support multiple users.
"You can instantly set up an office anywhere," he said. "Just flick a switch and go -- 10 minutes you're up and running with a mobile office."
Right now, a handful of companies are making the terminals, including Norway's Nera Satcom, Danish company Thrane & Thrane and Germantown, Md.-based Hughes Network Systems. Terminals run anywhere from $500 to $3,500.
Once the satellite covering the Americas goes live, it will beam connectivity to 98% of the earth's population, August said.
"It's one big world, this is one big network," he said, adding the sweet spots for BGAN are in media, disaster relief, mining, oil rigging, military and forestry.
With satellite service, however, comes the issue of latency. But both Shawn and Taylor said latency shouldn't deter companies from considering BGAN as a viable mobile option. The latency of BGAN is estimated at roughly 800 to 1,100 milliseconds, which Taylor said can "present challenges." But it is not much more than the amount of latency with General Packet Radio Services (GPRS), which has latency between 700 and 900 milliseconds.
"IT departments will get past the latency issues when they have affordable connectivity where no such option existed before," Taylor said.
Right now, BGAN service is pay-as-you go, meaning it's billed by data, not by connection time. Estimates indicate the service in the U.S. will cost roughly $4 to $7 per megabyte, while voice calls will run less than a buck a minute. Shawn said Roadpost will offer several service options, such as one with a $60 monthly fee, plus $6 per meg, or a larger, $550 monthly package that will include 100 megs and 30 voice minutes.
"BGAN can do quite a bit, both in terms of messaging, telephony and data connectivity," Taylor said. "Yes, the telephony is VoIP, but text messaging is text messaging. The data connectivity can support VPN connections, e-mail, file sharing and enterprise applications. Overall very useful stuff."