More on Satellite Internet -- BGAN experiments

Since my Sea Spirit Passagemaker 60 is built for ocean-crossing, I've been looking a little more deeply into satellite communications, as mentioned in my previous post.

BGAN is the least expensive of the satellite Internet systems in terms of equipment costs (but not the cheapest in terms of airtime costs). I've seen BGAN terminals like the Wideye Sabre1 shown below for about $1350 online, or "reconditioned" for under $1000. As of the time of writing, the data costs about $6/MB, which is a lot when you consider that a single web page can easily be 0.5 to 1MB! Speed is supposed to be about 384kbps download and 240kbps upload. The system also supports a "guaranteed" 64kbps or 32kbps mode, and can make/receive phone calls without a computer.

But there's that old saying that "in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they are different."

So, how does BGAN work in practice? As a boater (or is it "cruiser"), I wanted to pay particular attention to BGAN's tolerance to pitch, roll, and yaw, since it is not really intended for use at sea. It is just made to sit on the hood of a car, or on the ground, and be pointed at the satellite. But on the offchance that it "might work for me" (especially at anchor), I wanted to give it a try.

Here are a couple of pictures -- one of me setting up the system for testing, and one from another adventurer's blog -- that give you some idea of the size and shape of the unit. Although there are a lot of wires on the table, amazingly, no wires at all are required. The unit will communicate with your computer via Bluetooth or via Ethernet cable, and can run on internal battery power or an external A/C adapter.

These Wideye Sabre 1 units seem to rent for about $40/week or $160/month. I rented a unit just like the one in the picture for a week, in order to find out whether the unit could be used on a heaving boat deck, or whether instead it would be extremely fussy about positioning. There are larger and more expensive units out there, but I thought I would test the cheapest, assuming that anything else would be at least as good. The same company also makes the Skipper Communications FleetBroadband unit too, although I have no experience with that model.

Ironically, just after renting the unit, I came across a very good deal on a mini-VSAT system that I just couldn't pass up. So the whole test has become a bit moot, although I may still carry a BGAN unit as a backup (perhaps for the liferaft -- ok, bad idea). Still, I'm a curious cat by nature, so I continued through with the BGAN experiments once the unit arrived yesterday. I also wanted to see how good the speeds really were, and also whether the 32kbps and 64kbps channels were fast enough to do iChat or Skype video conference calls. Here are my results.

A note of caution about airtime costs -- At $6/MB, I found myself wanting to be very careful about what web sites I surfed to. I want to take a moment to warn everyone about airtime costs. Please note that at the full rated speed of 384Kbps (which is 48KB/s) and roughly $6/MB, this means it is possible to spend money on airtime at a rate of slightly over $1,000 per hour if one's computer decided to download a new operating system security upgrade in the background, for example. Turning off that sort of background downloading is essential.

Ease of setup and use
 -- Well, it couldn't really get much simpler. You turn on the unit, and it spends a couple of minutes getting a GPS fix so that it knows its own location. It remembers its location from the last time it was used, and if you let it, it will use that location without having to wait for a new fix. Once it knows its location, it gives you a short list of satellites to choose from.

In my case, it was two. I picked the first one. It then told me the direction and elevation of the satellite. For me this was ESE (102 degrees) and about 20 degrees elevation. I pointed the unit in roughly that direction. There's a built-in compass on the base, but elevation was just a guess.

The unit beeps when it senses the satellite. First, it gives a low pitch set of beeps. Then, as you "home in" on the satellite by adjusting the direction/elevation, it beeps at a higher pitch. The better the fix, the higher the pitch. In my case, it was very easy to get above the "50 dBHZ" signal level that they recommend as a minimum for operation. However, I never got above roughly 51 on the meter. So my impression is that I was operating with an "adequate" but not "excellent" signal.

The first time through, this setup took me about 5 minutes. But when I re-tried it later on in the day, I remembered roughly where the satellite was (they are geostationary, so they don't move in the sky), and I got the unit set up in about 1 minute.

Connecting to the computer was equally simple. The unit came with a CD-ROM that contained an application for Windows and another one for Macintosh. I installed the Mac application on my Macbook, which was very easy. I hooked up an Ethernet cable to my Macbook, and plugged the other end into the BGAN unit. I then ran the software. It took about 2 minutes to recognize the unit, but then presented a very simple user interface that  made it easy to turn on/off the service. It also showed usage, which was the only depressing part of the whole thing.

In general, the unit was extremely easy to setup and use. Turning it off was equally easy.

Stability -- Here I was very pleasantly surprised. I found that I could move the unit left or right by as much as 45 degrees without noticing any degradation in performance of phone or Internet. Similarly, I could tilt the unit up or down by about 25 degrees without noticing any degradation. This was quite astonishing. I had assumed it would be somewhat fussy as to positioning, but as long as my boat is rolling/yawing by less than 25 degrees, I now expect the unit to be just fine. Certainly it will be fine at anchor, although if the current is changing, I'll need to reposition the unit.

I don't know whether my position on the Earth has anything to do with the tolerance to angular change. The satellite I was using was only about 20 degrees above the East South East horizon, in case that let's anyone decide whether my experience was special or general. I had about 51dBHz signal strength -- barely above the minimum recommended strength of 50dbHz.

As an example, I phoned my Dad, and I spoke to him while moving the antenna around significantly. He reported that my voice was either "very clear" or "completely absent", but nothing much in between. Similarly, when listening to him, I found his voice remained very clear while I was moving the antenna, until about 45 degrees of horizontal rotation, or 25 degrees of vertical tilt, at which point his voice just stopped coming through. Moving the antenna slightly back toward the satellite restored his voice to perfection once again.

Speed -- I measured (using the DSLReports speed test) speeds of 380kbps download, and between 50kbps and 100kbps upload. The upload speed was disappointing, but the download speed (very important for retrieving web sites, emails, weatherfaxes, and so on) was as advertised. This speed feels quite adequate for casual surfing, although I wouldn't want to be on it all day (and certainly not at $6/MB).

Videoconferencing -- On the unlimited speed connection, iChat (which is the Mac's videoconferencing application) worked fine between me on the BGAN unit and my dad on a home broadband connection. It provided at least 10 frames per second in each direction (iChat). I switched the unit over to a 64kbps "guaranteed" connection, and it was also fine, but the frame rate dropped to about 4 frames per second. This is fast enough to have a meaningful interaction with people who you already know, although a bit slow for gauging reactions of people you've just met. On a 32kbps connection test, iChat didn't work at all, instead rejecting all attempts to start a call. But Skype was less fussy, and put together a videoconference at 32kbps with about 1 - 2 frames per second. This is pretty darned slow, only really enough to tell if someone is smiling or not.

Still, if you had to show someone a spare part or something like that, it would be adequate. Audio was great at unlimited speed, great at 64kbps, and good at 32kbps. However, the audio delay was about a full second on unlimited and 64kbps, and about 4 seconds on 32kbps. I would not recommend the 32kbps setting for videoconference. But the 64kbps setting is fine, if not cheap, at $5.49/minute.

Phone calls --- I made both inbound and outbound phone calls with the unit, and found that the quality was noticeably better than similar calls made with a cell phone. Audio delay was about 1 1/2 seconds each way. The delay was a little annoying, but I could imagine someone saying "gee, it sounds like you're right next door". I used to run a Voice over IP (Internet telephone calls) equipment company, so I have a good ear for voice quality issues on telephones. The BGAN system provides very good voice quality.

But how will it work on a boat -- Well, this was not strictly speaking a definitive test. It was conducted in my driveway in Honolulu, admittedly more or less 2,100 miles "offshore" by mainlander standards :). My moving of the antenna was probably indicative of a very rough time at sea, with the only "missing" factor being vertical heave. I will report more once I've had a chance to experience a unit at sea.

Compared to Fleetbroadband -- I have never used Fleetbroadband, but my understanding is that the service is very similar, if not identical. However, the FBB units are gyro-stabilized inside antenna domes, and so do all the satellite finding and tracking themselves. They are also significantly more expensive than the BGAN units, and the airtime is, for some reason, about twice the price.

Compared to Mini-VSAT -- I have also never used Mini-VSAT. But I have now bought a Mini-VSAT system because of the "all-you-can-eat" aspect of KVH's service plans. Mini-VSAT does have "metered" plans, and the rates are much better than BGAN or FBB, at about $1 per megabyte, with a low monthly "retainer" fee. But the real attraction is that you can have "unmetered" plans. These are similar to an all-you-can-eat buffet, where you pay a single fee, and whether you eat a little or a lot, the fee doesn't change. The fees range from about $6k/yr to about $60k/yr, depending on how fast you want the service to be. For those with a voracious appetite, the higher fees apparently get you 2Mbps download speeds and 512Kbps upload speeds, which is very similar to what one experiences on a home broadband connection. Even at the lower end of these plans, it means one can leave one's computers "always connected", which will be of use to some people. It also means not having to worry about the incremental costs of visiting graphical weather web sites, for instance. The "issue" for me with Mini-VSAT is the $25k - $30k upfront price of the equipment, which seems staggering.

The BGAN service is run by Inmarsat, who also put out several other services such as iSatPhonePro, mini-VSAT, and FleetBroadband. All have more-or-less global coverage (but not the poles), although some have only acquired worldwide coverage very recently.

Our Sea Spirit trawler will have mini-VSAT on it, since I found a very good deal on a terminal. But I'm considering using BGAN as an emergency backup, since it is inexpensive in that role. More on mini-VSAT in another post.

Winter 2011: Training from Lauderdale to Georgetown and back!