Web Exclusive: Without Satellite, Club Med’s Columbus Island Village Would Not Exist

By | January 1, 2003 | Feature, Telecom

by James Careless

Club Med’s Columbus Isle in the Bahamas: the name conjures up images of sun, sand and luxurious leisure.

For Club Med Management Information Systems Director Mario Fernandez, however, Columbus Isle also conjures up satellites. The reason: satellite communication is the data lifeline between Columbus Isle–located on the island of San Salvador, where Christopher Columbus first landed in 1492–and Club Med’s headquarters in Paris.

"Our satellite connection ties Columbus Isle directly into our corporate LAN," Fernandez explains. "Without this connection, there would be no way for this Club Med village to receive reservations, exchange accounting information and keep on top of the immigration documentation that is required for all visitors. Everything we do relies on this connectivity."

Club Med’s satellite service is provided by Verestar, a subsidiary of American Tower Corp. Specifically, Verestar is linking Columbus Isle and Paris using its International Private Line (IPL) point-to-point solution. IPL currently provides Club Med with 128 kbps connectivity, "although this can be scaled up to 512 kbps," Fernandez says.

Verestar’s IPL offers many benefits to Club Med. For one thing, this service supports a number of protocols including frame relay, which Club Med uses to terrestrially connect its other villages around the world. (The only exception is Club Med’s Ixtapa village in Mexico, which is connected to Paris via fiber and Telmex’s satellite service.) For another, Verestar offers 99.98 percent uptime on its satellite service. In practice, however, the company has done better than that. In fact, since being brought online on November 24, 2001, network reliability "has been 100 percent," Fernandez says.

But why is satellite so important to Columbus Isle? Two reasons: geography and economics.

In the first category, San Salvador is relatively small and isolated. It measures 12 miles by six miles at its widest point, and lies 200 miles southeast of Nassau, and 1.5 hours flight time from Miami. Not exactly on the beaten track: even Columbus moved on after making his first American landfall here.

In the second category, San Salvador’s lifeblood is tourism. In years past it had been home to a NASA tracking station and a pirate base belonging to the notorious buccaneer Captain George Watling (known as the Bahamas’ "pious pirate" because he forbade his men to steal or play cards on Sundays). However, with their departures, tourist dollars have taken over as the island’s economic mainstay.

The result? Although San Salvador does have its own power generating station and basic telephone service (both provided by the Bahamas government), it lacks the kind of telecommunications backbone a modern resort like Club Med needs. This is why satellite service is so important to Columbus Isle: without it, Club Med would not be able to conduct business here.

Actually, without Verestar’s help, Club Med might not have been able to set up a satellite link on the island. "The toughest part of getting Columbus Isle online was finding a way to get the equipment into San Salvador," Fernandez explains. "Fortunately, Verestar came through for us by chartering a plane and flying it in on the morning of November 12, 2002."

Around noon that same day, Verestar engineer Jesse Ruiz began installing a 2.4-meter Prodelin C-band antenna, Comtech CSAT-5060 satellite transceiver and Comtech CDM-550 satellite modem at Club Med Columbus Isle. By 1:00pm the next day, the Columbus Isle antenna was locked onto Satmex 5. Twenty-three hours later, Mario Fernandez began configuring Club Med’s routers back in Florida, while Ruiz continued to fine tune the Columbus Isle installation. By 6:30 p.m. that afternoon, Fernandez gave Ruiz the go-ahead to come home: the link was alive and well.

Today, Columbus Isle uplinks data at 128 kbps using Satmex 5/transponder 1C. The data is then downlinked at Verestar’s Miami teleport, and sent by T1 terrestrial line to Club Med’s offices in Coral Gables, FL. Finally, the feed is connected directly to Club Med’s LAN. The result: whether in Florida, Paris or San Salvador, all Club Med employees now enjoy the same level of access to data, and each other.

This said, Columbus Isle’s data connection isn’t entirely without challenges. Take electricity: occasionally the power goes out on San Salvador, which is why Columbus Isle has to maintain its own UPS battery system and diesel generators to ensure a constant flow of power. As well, parts and service are not always easy to find on an island as isolated as San Salvador. Thankfully, the toughness of Verestar’s equipment, and the reliability of satellite broadcasting as a whole, has kept Columbus Isle linked to Paris consistently through the worst weather the Caribbean can offer.

The bottom line? For Club Med, satellite communication is as essential to its success as sun, surf and sand. "We’re very, very happy with the service and support we’ve received to date," says Mario Fernandez. "By doing what they do best, Verestar lets us concentrate on what we do best."

Club Med Facts and Figures

  • Number of Resorts (‘Villages’): 122
  • Number of Cruise Ships: 2
  • Locations: Nearly 40 countries, including villages in France; North, Central, and South America; The Mediterranean basin; Polynesia, Pacific Rim (including Australia, Japan, and Malaysia).
  • Web site: http://www.clubmed.com
  • Verestar’s Web site: http://www.verestar.com

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