Broadband Hits the Road

Opinion: Guy Kewney took a portable two-way satellite dish along on his vaction to Spain. The packing was the easy part. .

Im off to Spain for a week: so Ive hired a portable two-way satellite dish.

All I can say is: Im glad nobody with a camera was watching me set the thing up.

First off, the good news: it works. Time will tell what its little "features" are, but if youre heading out into the real boonies, and you absolutely have to have Internet, its worth the arm and leg it costs.

If you have to ask the price, you probably cant afford it. Around $2,000 to buy one and an equally eye-watering $10 odd per megabyte. No, you would not use it for downloading wallpaper. Actually, if you have sense, you probably dont buy it: you rent it by the day.

Its a regional BGAN two-way dish. BGAN stands for Broadband Global Area Network, a portable, brief-case sized device, and you could easily mistake it for a notebook PC designed in execrable taste, in beige plastic. Except, when you open the "screen" up, theres no display; just the back side of the invisible dish.

And calling it "broadband" is taking the term beyond its normal limits. You get around 150 kilobits per second. Downloading big updates would be frustrating; and the latency, obviously, isnt what it sells on.

Even so, dont knock it. Where Im going—in the mountains of Andalucia, where my wife runs a holiday villa rental business, since you ask—you have to climb hills to get a cell phone signal, and the phone lines work nearly as well as wet string when it comes to modems. Getting ISDN style speeds in remote parts of the planet is worth the money.

So, (you can tell; cant you?) theres a "but..." on the way? Yes. Its the design.

This isnt a lecture on good styling. It is a complaint about mobile design. Specifically, if you use wireless gear, the assumption seems to be that youre going to use it indoors in a place where there is no sun.

I cant fault Inmarsat on the detail stuff. Regional BGAN sets up readily. It even includes its own GPS receiver so it can tell you where the satellite is. And theres a little compass on top so, if you really cant see the sun, you can still find out where the satellite is.

But frankly, the most useful tool was the map, because it shows where the satellite should be, roughly. And all the fine tuning has to be done on the display of your notebook. Ah, what fun!

Picture the scene: Clissold Park, a quiet bit of green in the centre of London, a couple of hundred yards from my home. There, in the middle of a big field, is eWeeks European Wireless Editor. In front of him is a black umbrella.

The wind is blowing fairly briskly. So the umbrella is trying to turn your correspondent into Mary Poppins--which means he has had to put his shoulder-bag on top of the umbrella to pin it down.

And this isnt a big umbrella, because your correspondent knows what big umbrellas are like in a breeze. But the result is that the network operator is peering under a shelter which is only about 18 inches above the grass. He looks a bit like a frog, with his knees above his ears as he leans clumsily forward, trying to read the LCD on his ThinkPad.

Even under the black umbrella, folks, I couldnt read the instructions clearly. Even there, the backlight of the screen is nowhere near up to the job of making it visible in daylight. And this is England on a relatively dull and windy summers day. Imagine what it would be like in Spain?

Im planning to set the thing up at night time. Theres no way the thing is going to be readable in the Andalucian glare, even if I climb under a tarpaulin. And in 130-degree temperatures, theres no way on earth Im doing that.

Now, what youre looking at is pretty vital. Its the indicator of where the strongest signal is. You can do the rough pointing from what the GPS says. It gives the correct compass setting and theres a protractor on the side which lets you set the elevation of the dish. But to get a good signal, you need to adjust finely.

This works well enough. It shows how the signal strength goes up and down as you rotate the package and tilt the lid. But if its day-time, youre probably better off just guessing.

What it needs, obviously, is for a simple LCD (mono!) to be built into the case of the dish. At the price they charge for this thing, it could even be connected to an electronic compass. But all it really has to do is show which way the operator has to turn it, and how much higher to lift the lid. An arrow would do it!

If you go into the country and have to send photos back, this will work. Deep into the country, it will work. But make sure youre the one with the camera, because if someone takes a picture of you setting it up, youll never live it down.

Read Guy Kewneys other recent columns about trends in mobile and wireless technology.