It was kismet: Inmarsat sent me a Thrane & Thrane Explorer 500 satellite receiver unit just days before my vacation. I recently spent one week at a cabin on a lake in rural New Hampshire, armed with many pounds of fresh ribs, a handle of bourbon, and a fishing pole. The one thing lacking was any form of communication, no mobile service, no broadband, no data.

Some might say that this is the perfect vacation for a techie, since getting away from everything isn't necessarily a bad idea. However, I tend to relax more when I know that fires aren't burning elsewhere. Thus, the need for some form of data access would make the vacation all the better, as long as I didn't spend every minute checking my email.

This is where the Explorer 500 and Inmarsat's BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) data service comes in. The Explorer 500 is a shockingly small device, roughly the size of a 10 inch netbook. It runs on battery or main power, offers Bluetooth, Ethernet, and USB data connectivity and provides an analogue phone jack for phone service. A small LCD screen on the back shows the system status and offers rudimentary configuration controls. The battery lasts for several hours on a full charge, and the unit can be coupled with a solar charger for sustained off grid use.

Into the woods

Signal blocking tree coverGear in hand, all I needed was a clear line of sight to the satellite hovering over the equator. When I arrived at the lake, I thought that I might be out of luck. The cabin was situated on the eastern shore of the lake, with heavy tree cover to the south. Naturally, that was exactly where I needed to aim the device. Luckily, this turned out to be a non issue.

Arguably the hardest part of using the satellite receiver is aiming it. The Explorer 500 has a dead simple method of accomplishing this task: an audible signal meter. Once it's powered on, simply use the embedded compass and inclination meter on the rear of the device, and aim it toward the south. The audible tone increases and decreases pitch depending on signal strength, and turns from blips to a solid tone when communication with the satellite is strong enough to carry data. With some minor adjustments, it's very simple to find a solid signal.

For my purposes, I had to shoot through the tree cover. This turned out to be a good test, and not only was I able to connect to a satellite through a small gap in the trees, but the signal was strong and reliable throughout the day. Toward evening, I found that I needed to adjust the unit slightly to relink, but this was a minor hassle.

Data speeds through the Explorer 500 are around 384Kbps down and 128Kbps up, not exactly broadband, but more than suitable for general data use. Latency was high, as you might expect for a signal that travels 44,000 miles before reaching Earth. I measured normal latency in the 1000ms to 1200ms range.

Overall, data transmission was reliable and fast enough for most tasks. SSH sessions could become tedious due to the latency, but web browsing, instant messaging, and email were quite usable.

One of Inmarsat's focal points is streaming data, wherein you can configure a streaming session that will guarantee uninterrupted data at a lower bit rate. For instance, if you wanted to stream audio or video through the device, you could configure a stream to run at 128Kbps. An example of a real world use of this might be television or radio correspondents working in the field, who need to stream live reports back to the station headquarters. In fact, Inmarsat offers dedicated data lines into its network operations center to complete the end to end guarantee. That stream essentially doesn't leave the network, and the result is a solid connection, no matter where you happen to be.

Red Sox (Inter)Nation(al)

I wanted (in fact, needed) to see how the streaming worked without the guarantee. What better way to do this than to stream a Red Sox game? I had the Explorer 500 connected to an Apple Airport Extreme and used the MLB Live application on my iPhone to pull the WRKO audio stream of a few Red Sox games through the satellite connection, with the iPhone plugged into a set of speakers. As long as I had reasonable signal strength, I encountered no problems streaming the entire game, without dropouts. At a data rate of around £4 per megabyte, it's not the cheapest way to take in a ballgame, but it was a good way to test the reliability of a nondedicated stream. Anything for science.

The Explorer 500 also has satellite phone capabilities. Connect any analogue phone to the RJ-11 jack, and if you have a signal you'll get a dial tone. This essentially turns that analogue phone into an international satellite phone, requiring the user to dial a country code before the number. I made around 30 minutes of test calls, with few issues other than the latency. When it takes a second or two for your voice to reach the other party (and vice versa), you wind up stepping on sentences from time to time. Overall, however, the audio was acceptable. There's also a facility to send and receive SMS messages through the device.

There are a few system utilities that can be used with the Explorer 500. There's a configuration utility called Launchpad that assists in aiming, configuration, and stream creation, as well as an IP driver shim for Windows and Mac OS X that adds compression and QoS to attempt to speed up data access through the device. For extended use, these may come in handy, but I was more than happy just using the web interface of the Explorer 500 for the configuration.

The costs are not for the faint of heart, with the £4 to £5 per megabyte rate for data and roughly £0.50 per minute for phone. But when you figure that you can communicate with anyone from literally anywhere, with or without mains power, the BGAN service is actually rather inexpensive.

Mobile satellite services aren't really designed for day to day use, but for someone who needs to be connected in places where even cell phones don't work, they're the only option. And with a service like Inmarsat's BGAN combined with such a small and capable device as the Thrane & Thrane Explorer 500, it's a very attractive candidate.

OUR VERDICT

Inmarsat's BGAN mobile satellite data service and the Thrane & Thrane Explorer 500 mobile satellite unit allow you to bring a 384Kbps/128Kbps data connection and satellite phone with you wherever you might go. Latency is high, and the data rates aren't at broadband speeds, but the small size of the unit and plethora of connection options make this an extremely attractive combination.