More than half a million enterprise and government locations across North America have used Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite technology to support some of the world’s largest mission-critical, wide-area networks. These VSAT networks support a wide range of environments from small, transaction-based applications such as remote monitoring and point-of-sale systems to fully converged, multi-megabit broadband communications enabling carrier-quality voice and real-time video. With more than 25 years of industry experience, leading VSAT service providers have proven the reliability and performance of satellite communications to even the most demanding of customers in commercial, industrial, and government markets.
In recent years, organizations including financial institutions, healthcare facilities, large retail chains, and government emergency-response agencies have turned to VSAT communications as a valuable connectivity solution for both disaster recovery and business continuity. Since VSAT satellite networks completely bypass the local terrestrial infrastructure, they are the obvious choice for providing back-up communications when terrestrial lines are down. Even new emerging wireless technologies – such as WiFi, WiMax, Evolution Data Optimized (EVDO) and other third-generation cellular networks – are ultimately dependent on the cell towers and local terrestrial telecom infrastructure that may be subject to disruption in the event of even a relatively small local disaster.
Events such as the 2005 hurricanes, including Katrina and Rita, have shown that traditional telecom technologies may experience outages of weeks or even months, depending on the severity of the event. When the land-based telephone and broadcast networks went down along the Gulf Coast, satellite networks remained on the job. Satellite services provided redundancy, ubiquity, and resiliency that was simply unavailable from land-based networks.
Although the performance of satellite systems has proven impressive as a means of risk mitigation for telecom outages, they can only be effective if they are built into disaster-recovery and business-continuity plans well in advance. Had satellite systems been better integrated into our emergency communications network, many of the post-hurricane communications problems that occurred in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas could have been substantially mitigated. The importance of planning for redundancy to terrestrial telecom systems and pre-positioning equipment for rapid deployment cannot be overemphasized.
VSAT as a Means of True Broadband Communications
For nearly three decades, VSAT has provided large retail, financial, and other businesses with connectivity for critical transaction applications such as remote monitoring, credit card processing, and point-of-sale data management. However, in recent years enterprises have been exploiting the full broadband capabilities of modern VSAT systems to run advanced high-bandwidth applications including digital signage, in-store music and messaging, video conferencing, interactive distance learning, and digital telephone services. VSAT service providers have long since migrated their services from narrowband, transaction-based applications to fully converged voice, video, and data broadband communications.
Another reason for satellite’s increasing appeal is the rising prominence of off-the-shelf VSAT services. Even five years ago, most enterprise VSAT networks were completely customized, multiprotocol, application-tuned creations that took a great deal of time and effort to put together. As a result, satellite networks were often out of reach for smaller businesses. Today’s enterprise VSAT services are standardized on IP-based protocols and are offered in pre-packaged service plans with data rates up to 3 Mbps. Such new services are designed to meet or exceed the bandwidth levels and "plug and play" capability of a business-class DSL connection. Commercial grade, pre-packaged equipment and service plans have removed the mystique of satellite communications and made it just as easy to buy and manage as traditional wireline communications.
Enterprises Mitigate Telecom Risk With Satellite Communications
With increased emphasis being placed on overall risk mitigation within both corporate and government organizations, C-level executives are beginning to ask the question, "How long can I afford for my network to be offline?"
As a completely independent, wireless last-mile solution, VSAT has become firmly established as an ideal telecom risk-mitigation solution, ensuring that critical communications will stay online even when terrestrial lines are down.
Enterprises with high uptime requirements can employ a "hybrid network", where DSL, frame relay, or other terrestrial link serves as the primary communications and the VSAT serves as a "hot standby" solution in the event of a terrestrial failure. This solution uses a redundant connection and diverse physical path (the VSAT) to provide network availability statistics of 99.99 percent. The world’s largest router manufacturer recently introduced a satellite modem in a network module adapter card that can slide into the router of an existing IT infrastructure – making the setup and configuration of VSAT for automatic failover connectivity easier than ever.
To help maximize the ROI of a VSAT risk mitigation solution, many enterprises are using the satellite during normal operations for multicast and broadcast applications such as digital signage or business TV. In the event of a terrestrial failure, these applications are put on hold, while more critical voice and data traffic takes over the VSAT link. Once terrestrial lines are restored, the voice and data traffic automatically switches back to the landline and the broadcast applications resume service.
Another approach to managing the costs of a satellite-based risk mitigation solution comes from on-demand (part-time) VSAT services. The enterprise pays a nominal monthly fee to be live and in hot stand-by mode on the satellite network, and then only pays for the satellite bandwidth in the event that it is actually needed for a disaster event. This "insurance policy" approach often offers the lowest barrier for an organization that needs telecom risk mitigation on a budget.
VSAT: The Ideal Platform for Rapid Deployment Communications
Another rapidly growing area for satellite communication services is transportable communications to respond to, or recover from, an on-site disaster. Enterprises and government organizations alike are turning to transportable VSAT solutions for their first-response teams. By integrating a relatively small, 1-meter diameter, auto-pointing VSAT antenna on the roof of an SUV or other mobile command vehicle, agencies can use the satellite service for go-anywhere mobile Internet access, toll-quality voice services, and real-time video surveillance that is deployable in 10 minutes or less. Traditional handheld satellite phone services (such as Iridium, Globalstar, or Inmarsat BGAN) work well for individual users, while the VSAT-based systems provide an ideal service for a "base camp" of multiple first-responder personnel requiring a number of Internet connected PCs and PSTN-connected telephones.
Incorporating a transportable or vehicle-mounted system into an organization’s disaster-recovery or business-continuity plans provides the ultimate in flexibility. In the event that a facility is damaged by fire or otherwise unusable, a transportable system can be used to establish a temporary facility and maintain operations.
How VSAT Services Work
VSAT satellite networks send and receive data via high-frequency Ku-band radio signals bounced off of a geosynchronous satellite orbiting some 22,300 miles above the Earth, providing a single, continent-wide, wireless last-mile solution. The VSAT terminal itself is comprised of a small (.75 to 1.2 meter) antenna, a receiver, and a transmitter that are installed outside and a satellite modem installed indoors at the local-area network (LAN) access point, providing traditional Ethernet connections.
VSAT networks are typically designed in a star or hub-and-spoke fashion, with customer locations connected over the air to a central teleport facility. At the central hub facility, server equipment receives and transmits to the remote sites, and routes information to and from the Internet, PSTN, or private connections to a corporate data center.
A very cost-effective medium for narrowband or converged broadband communications, VSAT has particularly strong advantages in ubiquity and multicast/broadcast applications. VSAT connections are not limited by the reach of terrestrial telephone or cable infrastructure and are available anywhere with an unobstructed view of the southern sky. VSATs are capable of sending and receiving all sorts of video, data, and audio content at the same high speed, regardless of their distance from terrestrial switching offices and infrastructure.
This also serves to make VSAT an ideal choice for WAN backup and disaster recovery. Because VSAT completely avoids the local-area wireline infrastructure, it is effectively able to avoid even large-scale local outages or disasters.
Case Study: Major Oil Company Communications Rescued by VSAT
The Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005 drove home the importance of business continuity planning. For major U.S. oil companies in the region, the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita highlighted the need to plan not just for transitory outages or network problems, but also for long-term communications failures. Those disasters also demonstrated that telco, cable, and terrestrial cellular infrastructures are likely to be severely degraded in the aftermath of a major storm, creating a need for a truly independent and redundant means of communications. As a case study, consider how one of the nation’s largest oil refining companies coped with these disasters and integrated satellite into its long-term communications risk mitigation plan to ensure complete continuity of operations.
In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the case study company lost voice and data communications with some of its 16 Gulf of Mexico-area refineries. Wireline circuits – frame relay, DSL, and cable – were all out of service. Cellular communications were saturated and often unavailable. Voice and critical data communications of any kind were offline. The refineries were completely isolated. Without voice and e-mail, refinery metrics could not be evaluated. Senior management was unable to make critical decisions, and employee and operational safety became a growing concern.
To deploy an interim emergency communications solution, the company turned to one of the nation’s largest service providers of VSAT satellite networks. Within 24 hours, the service provider delivered satellite terminals capable of delivering more than 2 Mbps services to restore critical voice and data communications between the headquarters and the affected refineries – avoiding costly and time-consuming refinery shutdowns.
Once terrestrial communications were restored, the oil company re-designed its disaster-recovery strategy to reduce its dependence on terrestrial communications links and integrated a satellite back-up solution into its ongoing communications and IT infrastructure.
Now the routers at the company refineries can automatically route services during failover. This is made possible by the Hot Standby Routing Protocol (HSRP) that is resident in the router. The on-demand satellite connection is configured on the router by the network administrator, just like any other telecom interface. The entire switching process between terrestrial primary and satellite backup links is automatic and requires less than two minutes.
As the world’s largest businesses and government agencies serve their customers and constituents – enjoying access to an abundance of communications options – satellite will see an expansion of its role as the disaster-recovery and business-continuity technology of choice, ensuring non-stop networking in good times and bad.
David Myers is senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Spacenet Inc. He can be reached at 703-848-1200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Appeared in DRJ's Fall 2007 Issue"