Home >> January 2013 Edition >> VSAT: Five “Must-Have” System Characteristics
VSAT: Five “Must-Have” System Characteristics
by Jon Manley, Director of Engineering + Business Development, Winegard Company

Satellite communications have come a long way since Russian theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first conceived of the geostationary orbit in the early 1900s, and the launch into space of the first commercial satellite, Intelsat 1, in 1965.

ManlyFig1 Today, communications satellites are taken for granted. Few people seem to know that virtually every facet of their lives depends in some way on space-based communications of one kind or another.

For business and commercial communications, VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) is becoming the SATCOM workhorse. It is growing as a cost effective communication medium of choice for applications where there’s no fiber and cable available, or where on-the-go mobile communications is required.

Once considered a niche technology, VSAT has garnered a growing market because of its flexibility, adaptability and cost effectiveness.

Due to the shrinking size and growing portability of VSAT antennas and terminals, they are increasingly deployed around the globe for oil and gas, military and defense, emergency management, medical, satellite news gathering (SNG), retail and finance and maritime operations. That includes a lot of mobile command post vehicles used during emergency situations or natural disasters.

VSAT is ideal for establishing two-way links for data, voice, video and Internet connectivity with remote or mobile locations in one compact, economical package. It easily connects distant workplaces with a company’s central office or communications center (star topology) or directly with other VSAT units (mesh topology), or a combination of both. VSAT networks can consist of from several dozen antennas and terminals up to as many as 500 units.

Anywhere there’s a need for reliable, mission critical or far-flung remote communications, VSAT is a growing part of the solution, because of its rapid setup, high throughput and secure point-to-point nature. It’s also relatively simple to integrate into an existing network. You don’t need a PC or the Internet to use it and it offers a huge advantage for security and protection of data since information is not transmitted over the Internet.

VSAT Considerations
If you are researching an initial VSAT purchase or wanting to update an older system, there are several critical factors you should consider before you buy.

In addition to making certain you find a quality product with a reasonable price tag, your considerations should extend into the financial stability and reliability of the supplier, as well as that of the antenna and terminal products.

Do the equipment supplier and the integrator have superior engineering expertise and experience? Can they customize the VSAT equipment for your specific needs? And, can they do it in weeks instead of six to nine months? What is the customer service and after-the-sale follow-up service like? Is a lot of technical assistance required?

Of course, cost is always a consideration. But your decision should not be based so much on cost, but on finding a unit that works well for your application. For example, some costly, high end VSAT systems used for mobile applications work well in smooth highway conditions, but have cables or components that may break when the vehicle is driven over rough pavement or on off-road situations.

Some mid-level priced units that are reliable and sport a rugged construction may hold up better than even the most expensive VSAT systems. Here are some all important items to consider before you cut a purchase order.

Five “Must-Have” System Characteristics
There are many manufacturers of VSAT antennas and controllers in the world today because of the growing popularity of the product category. How do you tell them apart and determine the most important system characteristics you should be looking for in a complete system?

Over the lifetime of the VSAT products, users are looking for equipment that works for years with little or no maintenance and downtime. Downtime can mean lost or delayed data that can cost a company hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per minute.

A wide variety of VSAT products are available on the market today. Industrial models begin at around $3,000 and go all the way up to $30,000 per unit. Different types of units are designed for different applications, primarily fixed and mobile. The portability of units is often important in certain industries so that communications can be moved from one location to another quickly to establish a link to the information network.

Many VSAT systems operate with the touch of a button for auto acquisition and there is no special training required to operate them. Others need to be set up manually, which requires more time and more on-site expertise.

Experienced users look for a VSAT system that is dependable and does what it is intended to do without a lot of maintenance. Customers want to get to a location and press a button and expect that the system will do its job by acquiring a satellite quickly and start communicating. The fastest VSAT systems usually acquire a satellite in two to three minutes, while others may take longer, depending on location. If you have a large quantity of data that needs to get somewhere in a hurry, you may want to focus on fast connecting systems.

Many users want a VSAT system that is able to automatically acquire a satellite without any operator intervention and without a technician. That’s a major plus when considering VSAT, because it can reduce manpower costs and make workers in the field more efficient. A “plug and play” model that virtually any employee can set up to establish satellite communications in a few minutes is a powerful business tool.

Dish sizes typically range from .74 to 1.2 meters in diameter. The rule of thumb is that the more transmitter power that’s available, the more bandwidth or throughout available.

Some manufacturers do little engineering, purchase parts from suppliers and assemble them. Other manufacturers engineer and make all or virtually all of their own parts and assemble the VSAT units in the U.S. with American workers. If you believe that Made in America delivers a more reliable product, then the choice becomes a little easier. You can just ask if the manufacturer designs, produces and assembles its units in the U.S.

Engineering expertise is another differentiator in the enhancement of VSAT reliability. Manufacturers with extensive antenna design and development experience, as well as the ability to customize a VSAT system to the exact needs of the customer offer a huge advantage in unit performance.

In remote or extreme environments, the construction of a VSAT antenna and terminal and the protective packaging of the supporting electronics are important considerations. When the units need to be moved by forklift or a crane, they must be well constructed to survive conditions like those found on oil drilling rigs, emergency management situations, electronic news gathering or military green zones.

Weather is another factor that affects VSAT performance. Solidly built units with good anchor systems are moved little, if at all, by the wind. Antenna movement by outside forces is a primary factor in losing satellite connectivity.

Not every manufacturer of VSAT antennas and terminals uses the highest quality materials in the construction of their units. Some units last longer than others. Well protected dishes and electronics are a function of quality manufacturing and the application of intelligent engineering.

VSAT manufacturers and integrators that provide strong, protective shipping containers for transportable units protect your investment. They also protect the electronics that make up the satellite communication transmission and reception station.

A manufacturer’s commitment to delivering the highest quality, long-lasting products drives the focus of its quality assurance system. Manufacturers who use rugged parts, such as marine actuators—the gold standard—value antenna performance and reliability.

Throughout new product development antenna designs should undergo rigorous performance, environmental, reliability, durability, regulatory and packaging testing.

During manufacturing processes, a comprehensive quality system of operational work instructions, process and product audits, and product functional and live testing ensure that the manufacturer’s antennas meet all established requirements before being shipped to the customer.

Key Ruggedness Factors
Buying a VSAT system is similar to buying a car or truck. Some of the options or some of the elements that ensure rugged construction and reliability are not always apparent. You have to look closely and ask the manufacturer or distributor some questions about their products. Here are some key factors to look for in a VSAT system that assure rugged construction and enhanced reliability. They can usually be answered by calling the engineering department of the manufacturer:

• Sealed roller bearings in the azimuth base
• Solid cast aluminum construction
• Aluminum cast sealed motor enclosures
• Use of marine grade actuators
• Meets CE International Protection Rating 65, or IP65, that prevents dust and water intrusion, as well as CE Low Voltage Directive Standards for safety and flammability
• Meets U.S. standards, as well as CE Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) standards for emissions, harmonics, voltage fluctuations and immunity
• Meets environmental standards issued by various VSAT satellite network operators such as Hughes

Ease of Use
Many users want a VSAT system that is able to automatically acquire a satellite without any operator intervention and without a technician. That’s a major plus when considering VSAT, because it can reduce manpower costs and make workers in the field more efficient. A “plug-and-play” model that virtually any trained employee can set up to establish satellite communications in a few minutes is a powerful business tool.

Ease of use is often a top priority for many customers, especially when they don’t necessarily want to cross train multiple employees to understand how the system works.

Put yourself in the user’s shoes. You are in a remote location, likely in an extreme environment setting up the antenna. If the setup is simple and requires no technician, all you need to do is plug in the unit, expose it to the sky and push one button and get first time connectivity. Automating satellite acquisition and an uplink makes life easier for the team in the field and it means faster connectivity to the company communications or operations center.

Highly reliable VSAT units can be set to automatically recalibrate the satellite connection every 15 seconds or so in order to maintain constant connectivity.

Fast connectivity is appealing to many markets, but especially for the satellite news gathering, emergency management and natural disaster segments.

With connectivity speeds (the time required to establish a link between the VSAT ground unit and the satellite, then to the operations center) ranging from two to 15 minutes, users can select what works best for them.

Easy Maintenance
Every VSAT user wants a maintenance free experience. Manufacturers would like that too and the good ones build quality products to minimize the need for maintenance. But we all know that things happen and that maintenance is required for complex electronic equipment.

When you investigate which VSAT unit to purchase, look for one that allows remote troubleshooting of problems that may arise. This can reduce diagnostic and repair times significantly.

Preventive maintenance should be easy to perform on the unit and clear instructions should be provided by the manufacturer and/or the integrator.

The Balancing Act
As one of our favored authorized resellers told me recently, “Winegard VSAT units are not the cheapest or the most expensive, but they offer the best balance of reliability and price of any units I sell.

I truly believe that, as well.

Our 60 years of pioneering antenna design and development, combined with our excellent manufacturing and engineering capabilities, makes Winegard a strong contender in the VSAT market. We hope we’re on your short list to consider for your network.

WinegardLogo Winegard’s manufacturing facility, featuring state-of-the-art high-speed automated manufacturing, assembly and packing equipment, operates under the Lean Continuous Improvement model.  This systematic approach to the elimination of process variation and waste continues to elevate quality, lower total cost, and shorten customer order fulfillment times.

In a highly competitive global economy, Winegard continues to lead its industry through the integration of these advanced production technologies and lean manufacturing.

Winegard takes great pride in being more than just an assembler, marketing the antennas as “Made in the U.S.A.”

About the author
Jon Manley has been the Director of Engineering & Business Development at Winegard for nearly 7 years. He oversees all R&D and new product design and development processes for Winegard. Through his vision he has established a diversely skilled engineering team that is capable of designing and building cutting edge antennas, mounts and accessories that have allowed Winegard to not only gain a competitive edge in the marketplace, but to enter new markets as well. Jon achieved his B.S.E.E. from Southern Illinois and later went on to get his M.B.A. from the University of Iowa. Prior to starting his career at Winegard, Jon was a RF Design Engineer and RF Team Leader for two Motorola Cellular divisions. Later he went on to become an Engineering Manager for the Motorola Land Mobile Products Sector before joining Winegard.

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ManlyFig2 A Case In Point

For business and commercial communications, VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) are found in some of the most remote locations and hostile environments on Earth, providing voice, data and video communication links back to company headquarters or other locations is a business necessity. Whether those sites are in the Arctic, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Texas or the Gulf of Mexico, VSAT satellite systems provide an ideal communication medium because of its data security, no need for a computer and broadband speed of data transmission.

Global communications and IT services company DTS was competing with the Goliaths of their industry for a major VSAT contract. The target was one of the largest oilfield services companies in the U.S. The prize was more than 200 VSAT systems that would be used to communicate between remote drilling or well sites and corporate headquarters hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Each satellite communication system would need to transmit and receive voice, data and video, as well as provide wireless broadband at the remote locations.

Some 40 companies from around the world competed for this enormous communications contract over a period of 18 months. The customer was determined to find the best combination of value and price. DTS was one of the smallest, and the only privately-held competitor for the contract. The ultimate decision would not be made on price alone, but on the ability of the supplier to provide a superior, customized product on a relatively tight timeframe.

ManlyFig3 How to beat the big competitors?
DTS teamed up with Winegard Company to pursue the proposal and develop a unique and cost efficient solution for the end customer. The companies complemented each other because of their belief in quality, innovation and timely response.

“DTS chose Winegard to supply the VSAT systems because it produces innovative, reliable products and can quickly customize units to fit our customers’ unique needs,” said DTS President Mike Guidroz. “When we call them and say we need a specific antenna, it’s done in days or weeks versus months for some of their competitors. Speed to deliver is a key factor for our customers and that is where Winegard rose to the top. We also like the rugged construction of the Winegard VSAT units along with the tech free set-up.”

DTS won the oilfield services company multi-year VSAT contract because of the innovation in product and packaging, as well as the speed to deliver. Many of the DTS competitors were unable to match the speed to deliver and cost effectiveness sought by the customer.

Hundreds of Winegard VSAT units are being deployed coast-to-coast and in the Gulf of Mexico to provide the oilfield services company with customized secure, remote communications with its oil rigs and other operations. Winegard’s VSAT systems provide a direct link between headquarters and oilfield operations, without using the Internet or a PC, for data, voice and video communications, often in hostile environments.