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8
2011

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Satellite Internet: BGAN Explorer 110 Review

by Tyler

Background

Before we left on this adventure, I made a commitment to my clients that their level of support wouldn't change while I was abroad. I bought our BGAN Explorer 110 from Globalcom in October of 2009, just before we went to Tunisia, thinking that their sole cellular provider, Tunisiana didn't offer internet access (they do). Since we planned to be traveling in the country for several months, waiting out winter, it seemed like a necessary decision.

To my relief, I haven't needed to use this expensive solution often. Staying connected has, for the most part, been a non-issue. As it turns out, nearly every country we've spent a significant amount of time in over the last two years has had some form of cellular internet access—even Mongolia. Roads? Not really. Cellular internet access? Yup.

The Hardware

Slightly larger than two DVD cases stacked on top of one another, and weighing in at 2.2 pounds (1kg), our satellite transceiver is a hefty piece of tech to be lugging around in a pannier. Luckily, I've never cared about counting grams! Unlike some poorly constructed electronics which claim to be "expedition ready" (I'm looking at you Powertraveller), our BGAN is built like a tank.

At the time I purchased the staggeringly expensive $2,000 device, it was the smallest and lightest option (read: only choice we physically had space for) on the consumer market. As best I can tell, it still is.

Remembering that this thing communicates with man-made devices in space (actually, geosynchronous low earth orbit, but whatever), the weight and price don't seem totally outlandish.

Uploading Work by Moonlight

Service Plans

Just like the device itself, the service plans are extremely expensive. There is a minimum flat monthly fee of $39 just to access the network, and every megabyte transferred costs a whopping $6.50. With a max connection speed of 368kbps, it would be possible to churn through hundreds of dollars per minute with this thing. Yikes.

Prepaid SIMs are also an option, but I had no idea how much I would be using it, so I stuck with the service plan offerings. Just $9,000 per GB of transfer! *gulp*

Providers

Service providers for access to the Imarsat network purchase "units" in bulk directly from the company for resale to customers. Pricing is almost exactly the same across all resellers. I went with GlobalCom because they responded quickly to my emails, answered the phone when I called, seemed excited about our trip, and gave us a huge discount on the hardware (which is normally something like $2,800).

GlobalCom's staff was also very understanding about the fact that we were on the road and needed everything sent to us within a specific time-frame. I would highly recommend them to anyone (even if they have a super annoying avatar on their website that walks on to your screen to talk to you).

Actual Usage

Needless to say, browsing the web for pleasure on a connection like this is reserved for the impossibly rich. Typically, the process of pushing out updates to my software and responding to email chews through 1-2mb of transfer. I connect just long enough to download email, disconnect to craft replies and implement any requests (I have a self contained development environment on my laptop for all of my client's software, allowing me to program offline), then connect again to send out the updates.

Where I Needed It

I used our transceiver during wild camps in Serbia and Macedonia because our "worldwide" cellular solution, Mobility Pass (which wasn't much cheaper) didn't work properly, and we never investigated local options. I also used it during several remote wild-camps in Romania and Russia. Our heaviest usage has been in Mongolia and Laos—though both have cellular options, they are limited in coverage.

Tyler Checking Email

How to Connect

The BGAN Explorer 110 provides an internet connection via ethernet or wirelessly, using bluetooth. I opted for the ethernet cable to save on battery life. There is a convoluted software package included for connecting to the network, but the device also has a small web service running on it, which allows it to be controlled via any browser.

BGAN Explorer 110 Status

The browser shown above is Google Chrome. If you are reading this using Internet Explorer, please go try it. Not only is much faster, web developers the world over will thank you.

A clear view of the sky is required—trees and other objects will greatly diminish the signal strength. Even a hand in front of the receiver can sever the connection. To actually establish a link with the satellites above, the transceiver's built-in GPS must first have a location fix. Without it, the device cannot operate effectively, as there is a variable time delay in the transmissions depending on the distance to the satellites.

Once the device knows where it is, connecting is accomplished by pointing the receiver at the sky and slowly rotating until it starts beeping. This is the really cool part: slow quiet beeps increase in frequency and pitch as the reciever is aimed. The tones are really obnoxious, but using them makes me feel like a spy, so I never turned them off!

BGAN Explorer 110 Signal Strength

Conclusion

Hugely expensive upfront and continuing costs will prohibit the effectiveness for most, but if a guaranteed internet connection is required anywhere in the world, and price/weight aren't an issue, this is a fantastic device. Never having to worry about connectivity for work is a huge peace of mind, but even so, I can't help but think I could have gotten away without it.

Resale value seems to hold fairly well for these, but I am going to keep ours, as we may yet travel someplace off the beaten path where there are no other options (on some other adventure, not this one!).


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3 comments

Thanks for this Tyler, great to know that it worked for you and that I'm not the only person who thinks that the pricing is stupidly insane!

I'm embarking on extended travel and was excited by the possibility of being able to sustainably fund my travel by working as I travelled, so I also looked into this with a local supplier. The safety aspect also appealed for off-piste adventures.

The cost of the hardware is off-putting but bearable at the lower end of the spectrum (NZD $1k for a second hand Iridium phone, NZD $2k for Iridium's GO hotspot, NZD $4k for a new Iridium phone) but it's the airtime that's unsustainable (NZD $1450 for 400 minutes valid for 6 months, or NZD $1600 for 500 minutes valid for 12 months = NZD $133-141/month). Those prices wouldn't be a problem if I was working in a city or had guaranteed work, but with potentially sporadic work they mount up for someone who has had to quit his job to have the time and space to travel properly.

The rep also said that the data transfer speeds were quite slow - ie 'slow dialup' for uploads, but faster for downloads.
Do you find that you need to stay connected for long periods to get all the data up or down? And have you tried using Skype or one of the other services to talk to clients via your setup?

Cheers,
Dan
Posted by Dan on August 19th, 2015 at 8:26 PM
Hey Dan!

I was able to use pay-as-you-go cellular internet packages for the majority of our tour. We also stayed at a hotel once every week or two and used the internet there for things that would consume a lot of bandwidth (uploading photos / audio / writing journals, etc).

I say all of this to say that unless you're going to be really off the beaten path, you probably don't need satellite internet.

To answer your question directly, I never stayed connected for more than a few minutes and I definitely never Skyped. I communicated via email only when using the satellite connection.

My basic workflow was this:

1. Connect just long enough to download email.
2. Disconnect.
3. Draft responses to emails (offline).
4. Do any programming required (offline).
5. Connect just long enough to send emails and push code to github/staging/production servers.
6. Disconnect.

If I recall correctly, each of these sessions consumed like 1-5mb.

Hope that helps!
Posted by Tyler Kellen on August 21st, 2015 at 6:54 AM
Hi Tyler,

Thanks - yes that makes sense to only use the expensive internet connection to tide you over until you can access a cheaper one.

It also makes sense to set up some sort of automated publishing so that one git push can trigger everything else that needs to happen without having to stay connected.

Cheers,
Dan
Posted by Dan on August 22nd, 2015 at 5:25 PM
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