Home >> March 2011 Edition >> Controlling satellite communication costs
Controlling satellite communication costs
author: Sandy Johnson, COO, Satcom Global

For armed forces operating in remote parts of the globe, the ability to communicate with colleagues, friends, and family has, until now, been restricted on the grounds of affordability and lack of communication channels. However, there is nothing less than a revolution currently occurring in the world of satellite communications.  As a result, it is now possible for users who spend long periods of times in these distant locations, whether on land or at sea, to benefit from the kind of high quality voice and data communications they have become increasingly used to using at home.

JohnsonFig1 The key to this change is compression. The latest data compression technologies provide two major benefits which now makes the provision of advanced communications channels a viable proposition for command staff and individual military personnel. 
First, the adoption of an advanced, flexible codec delivers a new level of high quality, two-way voice and data communications in an easy-to-use and secure environment. At a fraction of the cost of existing satellite communications, this makes it affordable to all.     
In addition, the technology is designed from the ground up to support ultra-efficient satellite communications delivery via pre-paid and post-paid options, providing military and civil organizations alike with the flexibility and transparency to retain control of their telecoms costs.  
Keeping In Touch
The difficulty of staying in touch with family, friends and colleagues has long been a challenge for those working in tough and out-of-the-way land-based or maritime environments. This has been especially problematic for military personnel operating in war zones in inhospitable terrains thousands of miles from home.
In the case of individuals, often away for extended tours of duty and perhaps keen to save as much as they can in order to send money home and support their families, the options have historically been limited.  Until recently, in most cases they have not been able to communicate from their operational base. They have had to wait until they reached the nearest city or next port in order to use a local, expensive, pay-as-you-go phone.

 In the past few years, matters have improved with the development of satellite communications, as it has become more common for the local command to provide some form of calling facility — for example, offering vouchers which allow military personnel to call home from their base, and at a time that suits their duty schedules. 
The ability to take advantage of this capability has continued to be restricted by the high cost of calls, typically $1 per minute or more.  In response, with the greater use of Voice over IP (VoIP) solutions, technology is now playing its part in making such communication much less expensive. 
The issue extends significantly beyond a simple requirement to be able to call home using a pre-paid voucher. At home, and on-shore more broadly,  military personnel are increasingly able to take advantage of a wide variety of sophisticated voice and data communications options — from instant messaging to sending and receiving emails to searching the Internet — all in a secure, controlled environment and achieving much better value for their hard-earned money as a result of today’s compression technologies.          
ComtechEF_ad_MSM0311.jpg With the greater availability of IP in the home environment, when in outlying geographies individuals similarly want to send and receive emails and photograph attachments  — the modern day equivalent of the traditional long awaited letter (to and from) home. 
At the same time, they may also want to be able to fill some of their leisure time surfing the net.  This has also been beneficial for senior staff who are keen to send and receive business-critical information via voicemail, for example, with colleagues at the command centre or other remote locations.
In enabling this enhanced two-way communication capability, for the first time in a pre-paid environment family or friends have the ability to leave a voicemail message so that the call can be returned at a convenient time, something which once again has long been taken for granted in the world of terrestrial landline and mobile communications.
‘One World, One Network’
Another key beneficiary is the bill payer or owner of the communications device. Those with responsibility for remote land bases or fleets are typically reliant on satellite communications for all communications between the command centre and outlying operating units, with telecoms an important element of the budget in managing each site.
The availability of new satellite-based solutions using compression technology represents a revolution in enabling truly global land-based and maritime communications, both in terms of cost and range of facilities, significantly narrowing the gap with what is available in well-developed terrestrial environments.
The cost of communicating is dramatically reduced by using VoIP end-to-end by installing a Horizon Multi-VoIP unit in each remote location and another in the operational centre. 
Previously, the center, or hub, would have to use a landline phone and call each location via a PSTN line, an expensive option costing perhaps $3-4 per minute.  Now it is possible to call any outlying base or vessel direct through the local user extension number and make a VoIP-to-VoIP call, using the background IP channel, therefore by-passing the PSTN operator.
The concept of email data compression in remote terrestrial or maritime environments is not new, although recent developments have taken performance and cost reduction to a new level.  However, until now, access on such broadband products has been limited to a one-voice channel, resulting in long queues to make a call. 
 With the introduction of a flexible new proprietary codec for the first time, it is possible to have multiple connections, with as many as eight handsets on one Horizon Multi-VoIP unit.  Not only does this allow eight people to make calls simultaneously, data can also be passed across the background IP channel at the same time.  Users can also maximize savings by selecting from several call settings for optimum cost/quality voice delivery. 
JohnsonFig2 This is a radically different form of communication and is highly intuitive and easy to install. Equally, the savings to be made here are huge, as this cuts the cost of such calls to just cents per minute.
Operationally, the availability of instant messaging is another valuable new facility. Historically, sending data across a satellite communications network in this way has been highly bandwidth intensive — up to 25 kbps — and, therefore, once again, very costly.  With the advent of instant messaging and peer-to-peer VoIP, the satellite system is optimized, using less than 2 kbps and provides an ideal low-cost two-way conversation option.
This offers a number of other advantages.  The instant messaging text facility enables correspondence to be put into print, which can be valuable in ensuring clarity of communication. For the local commander, for example, such also provides a way to communicate rapidly with the command center in the event of an immediate requirement for equipment, engineering, or other specialist support.

In a tough economic climate, this clearly offers a notable benefit to the armed forces overall in the ability to operate effectively within tight budgets.  However, it offers the additional plus of boosting the operator’s ability to recruit and retain individuals with specialist skills — and in effect become an ‘employer of choice’, by including superior, low cost voice and data communications facilities as part of a more competitive remuneration package.     
Shrinking The World
For military personnel operating in dangerous war zones or dealing with civil emergencies such as natural disasters, the ability to access the Internet and stay in contact with home on a regular basis in this way — by phone, email and text — will make the world a much smaller place. 

For the administration, the visibility and control of communications costs that such tools provide means that they can offer these benefits without the fear of expenditure spiralling out of control as they look to attract and retain the best recruits.