New satellite era enables portable broadband

One of the topics creating a buzz at the recent SatCon satellite conference in New York was the imminent launch of an Inmarsat satellite that will deliver broadband connections to magazine-sized portable transceivers.

The six-ton Atlantic Ocean Region I-4 satellite lifted off last month. Once tested, it will serve as the platform for Inmarsat’s new Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service, enabling small, battery-powered portable terminals to support 492Kbps data rates and separate voice traffic.

The Atlantic Ocean satellite will serve the Americas when service is turned on in April, complementing an identical bird parked over the Indian Ocean that will service Europe, Africa and the Far East. Inmarsat plans to launch a third satellite over the Pacific in late 2006.

High-powered, focused spot beams, along with a 25-times improvement in sensitivity, is what makes the use of small, low-powered terminals possible.

A handful of companies are building the terminals, including Hughes, Nera and Thrane & Thrane. Data rates vary by terminal type, with a maximum of 492Kbps shared, meaning data rates drop as more users log on (if hot spots develop, Inmarsat says it can aim more beams at a given area). Billing is for megabytes transmitted. Customers also will be able to reserve data channels of 32K, 64K, 128K or 256Kbps, with billing based on session duration.

Voice, carried on a separate 3.1-KHz channel, is said to be of almost toll quality. Both dial-in and dial-out are supported, as are features such as caller ID, call forwarding and voice mail.

Thrane & Thrane’s Explorer 500 is 8.5 inches square, 2 inches thick and weighs less than 3 pounds. It has an RJ-11 telephone port, an RJ-45 LAN port and can be powered by its internal battery for as long as 1.5 hours when the unit is transmitting full time at 144Kbps. The maximum shared data rate is 464Kbps down and 448Kbps up, with reserved speeds of 32K, 64K or 128Kbps.

Transmission costs are just emerging, but range from US$3.50 to US$7.50 per megabyte. While that seems expensive, some buyers at SatCon were eager to test BGAN. One said privately that he could see buying 5,000 terminals if they would enable his field personnel to service customers directly from their homes, negating the need for local offices.

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