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VSATS: Small In Size, Big In Benefits

By | July 1, 2002

      By James Careless

      VSATs: the acronym for Very Small Aperture Terminals. Not an exciting term in itself, but as for the technology? Well, as Via Satellite discovered when we spoke with some of the major VSAT companies, there are all kinds of dynamic applications on the market today. Here’s a selection of what we found.

      The Grand Canyon And Beyond

      The year 2001 was a tough year for everyone, not just the VSAT industry. Yet, despite the tough markets, “Gilat Satellite Networks still shipped 107,000 VSATs,” says Barry Spielman, the company’s director of corporate marketing. “We see this trend continuing with strong demand for this technology in general, and our products in particular.”

      On the consumer VSAT side, Gilat is the equipment supplier for leading broadband service providers in Europe, Brazil, India and Australia. In the U.S. consumer market, Gilat’s energies are being put into Starband: a two-way satellite broadband project that the company launched in partnership with Echostar and Microsoft. To date, Starband has signed up 45,000 broadband subscribers. These include “Indian tribes at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, on the Arctic Circle, in Hawaii and everywhere in between,” Spielman says. At press time, Echostar announced its intention to pull out of Starband, and to stop offering it to Echostar subscribers; a move some analysts saw as an attempt to pressure FCC approval for Echostar’s merger with DirecTV.

      The logic here is that the only remaining satellite broadband service that Echostar can offer would be Direcway, which it can only get access to if the merger goes through. Stay tuned.

      To say the least, some of Gilat’s installs were far from easy. For instance, for the Grand Canyon job, “it took a helicopter and a convoy of donkeys to transport the equipment two miles deep into the canyon,” says Spielman, “in an area where the local population had never had any phone communications whatsoever. Now, people in the canyon are attending university via the Internet.”

      Unique? Yes; so too is a distance learning project in Africa, where Gilat VSATs are being used to provide broadband Internet access to local schools. Funded by a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the World Links Organization, a pilot program involving 15 schools in Uganda is now underway.

      “The World Links program is using Gilat’s Skystar Advantage two-way, IP-optimized VSAT network to provide schools with safe, high-speed delivery of educational Web content and special training developed by both World Links and the World Bank,” Spielman explains. “VSAT is the only technology capable of providing ubiquitous, reliable communications service to this region.”

      These are just a few of Gilat’s ongoing VSAT projects. Others include creating an IP-based VSAT network for six Continents Hotels to connect 2,100 Holiday Inn hotels to a centralized reservation system, and a 6,000 site rural telephony network for Fondo de Inversion en Peru (FITEL).

      “In general, the beauty of this technology is–to use a couple of clichés–changing people’s lives, and bridging the digital divide,” says Spielman. “The FITEL solution discussed above is bringing telephony and Internet access to rural areas throughout Peru that had no communications at all prior to this technology being installed. There are numerous examples of this kind around the world, all using Gilat VSAT solutions.”

      As for the future? “Gilat sees a continuation of the trend that we have seen for the past several years, where VSATs are performing better and costing less,” notes Spielman. “With the cost of VSAT networking going down, smaller retail chains are now able to enjoy the benefits of persistent, satellite broadband communications.”

      A case in point: “Connexstar, a new service introduced this year by Gilat’s Spacenet subsidiary in the United States, provides small to mid-size retail chains with unlimited high-speed Web access–and also supports a variety of business applications such as credit authorization, nightly polling, music and video–for as little as $119 per month per site, with a one-time $999 equipment fee,” he concludes. “With Connexstar, chain businesses of almost any size enjoy the same IP networking technology that previously could only be enjoyed by the largest enterprises.”

      Worldwide Expansion

      VSATs are a critical part of Hughes Network Systems’ business. Small wonder; HNS is one of the world’s largest VSAT companies.

      So what’s new in VSAT at HNS? Well, broadband Internet–under the Direcway banner–continues to dominate the company’s efforts. And these efforts are paying off. Direcway already has more than 100,000 residential subscribers. This makes it the fastest-growing segment of HNS’ total base of over 500,000 VSATs, spread across 85 countries.

      The reason for this growth: HNS is pushing hard to expand Direcway worldwide. For instance, the company just launched Direcway Broadband in Europe; at the same time it opened a new European operations center in Griesheim, Germany.

      “With Direcway, we can immediately meet the growing need for broadband value-added services of both enterprises and consumers throughout Europe, without them having to wait for the local loop to be opened up,” explains Pradman Kaul, HNS’ chairman and CEO. “We are proud to make this investment to foster the growth of broadband services throughout Europe.”

      However, beyond broadband access for its own sake, there are many broadband applications that VSAT is ideally suited to fulfill. These include corporate training and micro- advertising, says Arunas Slekys, HNS’ vice president of corporate marketing.

      Take the fast food industry: research shows that serving-staff performance has a direct impact on a franchise’s bottom line. “If the people behind the counter know their menu and treat you well, you’re more likely to come back,” says Slekys. “That’s why stores with better-trained staff do better financially. The numbers prove it.”

      This is where HNS’ VSATs come in, at least for Wendy’s. By connecting 1,200 Wendy’s franchises in the United States and Canada via Direcway VSATs, this chain has standardized the quality and immediacy of its staff training. Moreover, Direcway also provides Wendy’s with a high-speed two-way channel for debit card authorizations, in-restaurant music, and corporate data transfers.

      “Our goal was to get seamlessly connected with our restaurants, while providing a variety of broadband-enabled applications in a reliable, scalable and cost effective manner,” says John Deane, Wendy’s International senior vice president and chief information officer. “Direcway delivered on all counts.”

      As for micro-advertising: this refers to the music and videos favored by many stores these days to drive customer purchases.

      “The goal is to create the right mood and the right environment in order to encourage people to buy,” says Slekys. “Micro-advertising can also be used in virtual ‘catalog stores.’ These are small-town outlets that don’t stock everything found in the big city, but who can let you see what they’ve got access to–and order it–using online monitors and terminals.”

      The bottom line: Hughes has been in the VSAT business 15 years, and they see no reason to rest on their laurels.

      Taking VSATS Global

      When it comes to VSATs, Loral Cyberstar is one of the truly global service providers out there. As such, it’s well-positioned to make satellite broadband a reality for customers such as the British government.

      Specifically, Cyberstar has been contracted to provide satellite links for British embassies worldwide. They’ll fill the gap between a series of high-speed fiber optic networks. In total, this network will serve approximately 10,000 users in 240 U.K. embassies.

      As for speed? No matter where they are, these embassies gain access to secure two-way communications, at speeds ranging from 64 kbs to 320 kbs.

      Meanwhile, Cyberstar has partnered with Chinasat to offer Cyberstar’s Clearstream product suite throughout the country.

      “Through our partnership with Chinasat, customers throughout the Chinese market will have access to IP services,” says Neil Bauer, president of Cyberstar.

      Staying with Asia, Cyberstar has also inked a deal with Net4India. One of India’s leading ISPs and infrastructure services companies, Net4India is reselling Cyberstar’s Worldcast Fast Internet service. Using Cyberstar’s backbone, Worldcast Fast Internet says it offers both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint connections ranging from 64 kbs to 45 Mbs in speed.

      “With Cyberstar’s Worldcast Fast Internet, we can finally provide organizations in India with the last-mile solution they need for high-quality Internet connectivity,” says Jasjit Sahwney, Net4India’s chief executive officer. “Using satellite to bypass congested and unreliable terrestrial infrastructure reduces packet loss, provides premium quality of service and increases the reliability of the connection. Worldcast Fast Internet will help us to achieve our goal of providing the best-performing, most scalable Internet network available in India.”

      Demonstrating the power of satellites to reliably deliver time-sensitive data on a global basis, USA Today uses Cyberstar’s Digital Link service to deliver daily editions of its newspaper to printing plants in London, Frankfurt, Brussels, Milan and Hong Kong.

      “Reliability is our number-one priority,” says Steve Terrillion, prepress operations director for USA Today. “When using terrestrial lines, we’ve had downtime and data transfer rates that slowed to the point where it was just impossible to meet our press deadlines–an untenable situation for printing a daily newspaper. These data links are mission critical, and we cannot rely on an unreliable terrestrial infrastructure. “

      Clearly, Cyberstar is making headway with broadband via satellite, despite the economy. The reason? “Multinational enterprises still need data moved across their WANs, and there are still many areas of the world where ISPs need to link back to the Internet backbone,” says Bauer. “In addition, we are beginning to see more interest in streaming applications, as companies take stock not only of the costs and lost productivity of employee travel, but also of the safety of their employee base.”

      As for the future? Neil Bauer paints a rosy picture ahead for VSATs. “We envision that the attributes that already make satellites attractive will be refined and enhanced to become commonplace choices for both the enterprise and consumer,” he comments.

      In particular, Bauer sees enhanced video services as a major growth area for satellite broadband. “If pictures can paint a thousand words, then the power of video can only be imagined,” he says. “Video and multimedia applications will have a major impact in the enterprise, which will benefit from the cost efficiencies and global coverage that IP multicasting video-based services to the desktop will allow them.”

      Making Headway in China

      With more than 4,000 terminals deployed in 40 countries, NSI Communications knows its way around VSATs. It also knows how to install and support them in tough environments, including the windswept, saltwater-sprayed world of offshore oil rigs.

      However, it’s not just nature that poses challenges to VSATs, but man as well, specifically governments and cultures. Take China: with more than one billion citizens to reach, and relatively poor terrestrial networks for doing so, China is a natural market for VSATs.

      Like Loral Cyberstar, NSI has made the effort to break into the Chinese market. Specifically, its VSATPlus 2 product–which provides a full mesh, hubless network capable of handling IP, voice and data from multiple sites–has been chosen by PetroChina for its pipeline communications network.

      The network, which covers 70 sites, involves three pipelines. “The first pipeline, which is already complete, carries natural gas from Sebei in Qinghai province to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province,” says Ron Mankarious, NSI’s vice president of marketing. “The second pipeline, which is under construction, carries refined oil products from Lanzhou to markets in and around Chengdu and Chongqing. The third, to be constructed in 2002, is planned to carry natural gas from Chongxian in Sichuan province to Wuhan, the capital of Hubai province.”

      So what does a pipeline need from a VSAT-supported network? Plenty.

      “The network is used for the monitoring and control of pipeline operations, as well as voice and WAN connections for administration and dispatch services between PetroChina facilities along the pipeline,” Mankarious explains. “Reliable monitoring and control of these pipelines is of utmost importance since the pipelines pass over rugged mountain terrain, so a single failure can result in disaster.

      “NSI’s ability to provide hot redundancy and its overall reliability was a major reason for the selection of the VSATPlus 2, which already fulfills this role successfully with other pipelines in China. The NSI VSATPlus 2 product provides voice and Supervisory, Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) services between control centers and installations along the pipelines,” he continues. VSATPlus 2 is also being used to connect PetroChina oil rigs in China’s Yellow Sea.

      Meanwhile, NSI’s low cost SkyIP–which provides a single IP or serial “FlexiDAMA” connection over VSAT at speeds up to 2 Mbs–is being used by Firmnet to connect remote medical facilities throughout China. Deployed both for telemedicine and distance learning, SkyIP acts as a high-speed hub for each facility’s LAN, connecting it to the world.

      “Detailed remote examinations require very high-resolution images,” says Mankarious. “A continuous dedicated high-resolution video stream would make the service cost prohibitive. FlexiDAMA’s ability to only utilize bandwidth when it is needed allows for very low costs per examination….This service improves the delivery of much needed medical expertise to remote regions of China.”

      Staking A Future On IP

      VSAT is a mainstay for Shiron Satellite Communication. Two-way broadband is thus central to Shiron’s future.

      That’s why the company has staked its VSAT hopes on InterSky. It’s a two-way broadband via satellite system that supports fast Internet and IP applications, such as Voice over IP (VoIP), videoconferencing and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). As well, “thanks to the large number of service providers worldwide operating the InterSky system, we’re able to provide global coverage,” says Shiron product manager Yehuda Rest.

      What makes InterSky stand out is the fact that it’s entirely IP-based. This allows Shiron’s broadband terminals “to interface with all standard IP equipment,” Rest explains. “We do not send our clients to a specific vendor that has customized equipment for Shiron, rather we allow our clients to continue using the IP infrastructure that they have implemented.”

      As far as Shiron is concerned, IP is the ticket to a profitable future. “We see all traditional communication products migrating toward the IP environment,” says Rest. “This includes everything from SAP applications to point-of-sale, audio and video.

      “It’s important to have a system that can fulfill the varied needs of these applications and combine them seamlessly in a single environment,” he adds. “The InterSky system allows simultaneous operation of multiple types of applications, since it uses a QOS mechanism for managing priorities and bandwidth sharing.”

      At Home On The Range

      As the owner/operator of the Chicago International Teleport, Spacecom Systems lives and dies by VSATs. As a result, they offer the full range of services possible over this technology: two-way broadband satellite solutions for either point-to-point or point-to-multipoint, to the Americas on either C- or Ku-band.

      Like others in the VSAT industry, Spacecom’s emphasis these days is on IP transmission, specifically via its Spacelink product. “Spacelink combines the ability to broadcast virtually any type of digital content with the ability to have an interactive satellite IP return channel,” explains Phil Lubzetak, Spacecom’s director of new business development. “With Spacelink you can deliver live MPEG video or audio, asynchronous or synchronous data, or multicast digital files directly to your server. What’s more, Spacelink can be deployed in C- or Ku-band, domestically or internationally, and in any combination of the following three modes of operation: broadcast only, broadcast with a terrestrial or WAN return, or full two-way VSAT.”

      So who’s using Spacecom? Well, there are the usual clients one would expect: financial institutions, paging networks and broadcasters. However, Spacecom also provides Internet access for schools and remotely-located ISPs, secure VPNs for business e-mail and data, and temporary connections for disaster recovery, construction, or even on-location filming.

      A case in point: PBS’s “Frontier House” series, which documents modern-day Americans living the life of 1870s Montana homesteaders, got its on-location connectivity through Spacecom. After all, given the remote locations of the “homesteader families,” satellite was the only way to get signals in or out.

      As the “Frontier House” project proved once again, “VSAT will always have the advantage to be able to be deployed virtually anywhere with minimal lead time,” says Lubzetak. “There still will be significant areas that will not be covered by high-speed terrestrial connections and satellite can fill these needs.”

      This is why Lubzetak is bullish about VSAT’s future. “As the capabilities of VSAT terminals increase–and costs decrease– I see VSAT applications becoming an integral part of larger networks,” he observes. “After all, although there is no doubt that satellite will never replace terrestrial connectivity, it’s also true that terrestrial connectivity is not the answer to every application. The two solutions have their own strengths and weaknesses, but also can provide great solutions when used in conjunction with each other.”

      Making Broadband By VSAT Work

      Since entering the VSAT business in 1982, STM Wireless has made steady progress. In fact, according to COMSYS’ “2001 VSAT Report,” STM has an 18.6 percent share of the Mesh terminal market, and 13.7 percent of DAMA channel terminals.

      When it comes to the global TDMA VSAT sector, “STM has chosen not to participate in the U.S. market, but to concentrate on the developing countries,” says company Vice President Bernd Steinebrunner. “Since the U.S. market represents about 70 percent of the global VSAT market we estimate that STM’s marketshare on an international basis [outside the United States] is approximately 20 percent or more.”

      STM Wireless has staked its claim to broadband via satellite, specifically through its Spaceweb VSATs. “Unlike most systems, STM’s VSAT provides broadband satellite access and complete router functionality for the remote office,” Steinebrunner says. “STM’s unique dynamic TDMA return access technology provides the most efficient use of bandwidth for bursty, Internet type traffic, to minimize costs for the service provider.”

      A case in point: Indonesia’s PT Primacom Interbuana (Primacom)–which already operates one of Asia’s largest VSAT networks for a number of clients–wanted to add high-speed Internet access and commercial data access to its product portfolio.

      To do so, Primacom opted for STM’s Spaceweb Online: a DVB-based IP broadband product. Using Spaceweb Online over VSAT, Primacom can send data out over a DVB hub channel at speeds ranging from 2 to 48 Mbs. Then, for the return path, remote sites have access to TDMA channels at speeds ranging from 64 to 192 kbs.

      Given the asymmetrical nature of Internet traffic, STM’s 48 Mbs downlink/192 bs uplink combo is powerful indeed. As well, Spaceweb Online’s use of IP means that data ported through this network can go directly from LAN to LAN, with minimal delays.

      One of the first companies to sign up for Primacom’s new service was Bank Central Asia (BCA), Indonesia’s largest bank. Thanks to Spaceweb Online, BCA can now deliver banking applications to 750 branch offices, plus ATMs throughout the country.

      Here’s how it works for ATM customers. After they type in their request on a BCA ATM, “a Spaceweb Online remote system transfers the data transaction back through satellite to the main hub located at BCA’s main office,” Steinebrunner explains. “There, the information is verified via the BCA’s main frame data base. Within seconds, another signal sends the information back to the ATM, where the customer can withdraw cash, view a personal account, or transfer funds.”

      Did the install go without a hitch? Does any installation for any company ever go without a hitch? Well, no. In this instance, STM discovered that “certain route-discovery data was not communicating through the network, even though the network was passing data between the central office and the branches,” says Steinebrunner. “After we investigated, we found that route-discovery was being performed by a protocol supported on the Cisco router known as enhanced interior gateway routing protocol. Unfortunately, the IP encapsulator in the DVB broadcast system was rejecting the format of this protocol. That’s why STM then developed software to route this protocol along with the TDM/TDMA control channel, bypassing the DVB system and allowing the route-discovery to communicate through the network.”

      Today, broadband via satellite is performing as ordered for BCA, and other STM customers. So if someone tells you that satellite broadband has no potential, you now have every reason to believe they’re wrong.

      VSATS Poised For Growth

      With all the applications we’ve just seen, one point becomes very clear. VSATs are alive and well. In fact, with the advent of broadband–even in the current market–VSATs are poised to do better than ever.

      Best yet, the future looks bright for the VSAT industry. As the global demand for data grows, so too will the need for this technology.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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