Most enterprises with a highly mobile workforce don't traditionally think of adding a mobile satellite communications solution to enhance their wireless connectivity options. After all, until recently satellite technology has been more complicated and expensive than many business clients would need.
However, as satellite vendors have moved from proprietary systems to the same Internet Protocol standards used in other networks, they say it has become much simpler than it once was to integrate satellite technology within a broader communications framework.
In fact, George Spohn, VP of Sales & Marketing with Thrane & Thrane, Inc., a provider of global communication systems with U.S. offices in Virginia Beach, Va., figures that anyone who can set up a Linksys network in their homes can integrate a satellite network.
For mobile enterprises with remote workers running mission-critical applications, always-on connectivity is crucial. Yet, some of these remote workers may operate outside the range of existing cellular networks, or in areas in which cellular charges become cost-prohibitive. Ensuring always-on connectivity can require an enterprise to invest in deals with multiple carriers, or to spend money on roaming agreements.
Mobile satellite communication technology can transmit voice and data in areas where wireless coverage is expensive or non-existent. "Satellite communication doesn't replace other wireless networks; it extends those networks to where cell [technology] doesn't go," says Spohn.
For example, says Spohn, using a mobile satellite solution could eliminate the need for an enterprise to rely on a "store-and-forward" application in the field, in which information is retained on the client device until the user can get back within cell coverage range in order to transmit.
Today's mobile satellite solutions, which communicate through fourth-generation satellites, are relatively portable. In the past, some of the modems could weigh several hundred pounds, says Christopher Watson, Director of Marketing with KVH Industries, a communications solutions provider based in Middletown, RI. KVH's system today weighs 60 pounds.
Most satellite modems are similar in size to an open paperback book, can handle both voice and data, and can plug into a PC or handheld device, Spohn says. Data transmission speeds run about 500 kilobits per second, he adds.
They're ruggedized, and can work in extreme environments such as disaster zones and oil rigs. They're particularly useful for companies with widely scattered field crews or global work forces.
"All our clients are in widely dispersed areas, and can't afford dead zones," says David Sward, GM with TransCore, a developer of communication systems based in Harrisburg, PA.
A Strategy Analytics survey of 400 end-user organizations in the U.S. shows that more than one third of respondents lost cellular coverage in the field more than 10% of the time. Over 30% of respondents stated that they lost data connectivity "when they needed it" more than 10% of the time.
Forty percent of respondents stated that these outages or dead-zones slowed their ability to complete tasks on time more than 10% of the time. "Organizations have become increasingly dependent on mobile solutions," says analyst Philippe Winthrop, who conducted the Strategy Analytics survey.
Moreover, satellite technology isn't vulnerable to extremes in ground or weather conditions, says Stephane Momy, Director of the tracking and messaging systems group with satellite communications company EMS SATCOM, based in Ottawa, Canada. "In a hurricane, satellites aren't affected," while cellular communication usually is disrupted, he notes. Equally important, satellites can continuously balance their load, ensuring that communication gets through. "It can be the communication system of last resort," he adds.
In fact, mobile satellite solutions can be configured so that the router first searches for WiFi, then for cellular service, and only then for satellite connectivity. While the systems can be continuously connected to the satellite network at all times, the customer pays for connectivity only when the system is actually being used, Spohn adds.
While communicating via satellite tends to be more expensive than through cellular or WiFi networks, the costs of hardware and airtime have dropped. Satellite modems can cost several thousand dollars. Air time, while varying, "is about the same as you would pay if you were roaming [on a cell network] in Europe or Asia with your BlackBerry," Spohn says.
"The challenge for a highly mobile workforce is that you will hit a dead spot when you need connectivity most," says Winthrop. "The opportunity cost of not having that connectivity can be very much outweighed by the cost of a back-up solution such as satellite."
This article was adapted from a report in the December 2008 edition of Vertical Systems Reseller, a sister publication to Mobile Enterprise.