Test Center adventure: Phone and data off the grid

Inmarsat's satellite data service and the highly portable Thrane & Thrane Explorer 500 can connect you wherever you happen to be, or not be

Bottom Line

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.

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 cell 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 e-mail.

[ Follow Paul Venezia's other technology adventures in his Deep End blog. ]

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 analog 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-the-grid use.

Into the woods

Gear 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.

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Test Center Scorecard
25%25%20%20%10%
Inmarsat BGAN Thrane & Thrane Explorer 50089999

8.8

Very Good

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