The New Space Race

By George Koroneos • Contributing Editor | May 01, 2006

When hospitality providers think satellite, more often then not, it's in terms of a television signal. However, satellite technology has been used for years to deliver a high-speed Internet connection without the burden of having to worry about dealing with a local DSL or cable provider.
Those in the know, have been hesitant to take advantage of satellite due to the higher cost for service and fear of dropped signals. The reality is that the technology is more stable and popular then ever before.

Falling prices
Prices are dropping, making the service more cost-effective than it was in the past. On a consumer level, prices are still far higher for VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellites, but business rates have become more competitive. In the last 18 months, a new generation of VSAT equipment has been released. Five years ago, a system could max out at a couple of hundred kilobits per second; today data transfer can reach speeds of up to three megabits per second.

Location is an area that VSAT has the competition beat hands down, with satellite signals having the ability to reach any unit with roof access. Moreover, VSAT companies are now coming to the table as managed network providers, offering multiple ways to connect restaurants and multiple service levels, extending beyond the traditional VSAT satellite system.

With an enterprise level VSAT solution, some vendors provide a maintenance plan that guarantees that a technician will fix a problem signal within 24 hours. This service, however, does come at a premium.

Call of the hybrid
An option for companies not willing to make the full plunge into VSAT is to install a hybrid system. Vendors are partnering with local DSL and cable providers to offer a package in which the vendor helps choose what service would work best in a certain location and then manages it.
There are currently two hybrid solutions on the market and each has its own benefits. One option is to have both DSL and satellite running redundant into an establishment and having one back up the other. If the DSL goes down, the VSAT system picks the signal up and work continues.
Another option is the network level hybrid--rather than have two signals into one location, a company chooses which solution is provided to each location. This comes in handy if an establishment has signal noise caused by excess tree coverage or the building isn't zoned for a satellite. Some companies also choose to install VSAT in their high-traffic locations and use DSL or cable in locations where uptime isn't as much of a concern.
When Larry Beckwith, CIO of Bob Evans Farms went looking for a high-speed Internet provider to replace the archaic dial-up connections and the company's 500 plus locations, he settled on a VSAT from Spacenet (spacenet.com).

"We chose VSAT in 2000 because it gives us one solution everywhere," explains Beckwith. The company then went into high gear with their new system, adding IP credit card processing. This solution cut costs by allowing the company to send one combined settlement to the credit card processor from all locations rather then each store settling individually. All restaurants received e-mail access, as well as online forms, manuals and an internal inventory system that connects to the corporate computer automatically.

"Going from dial-up to broadband is like night and day," Beckwith says. "This whole inventory system could not be done on dial-up. You could probably do it on DSL or cable, but the last time we looked at cable, we could only get it in 300 stores. We are a small staff here at corporate, and I can't have four or five solutions that I have to maintain, and I really don't like the idea of having to pay someone else to maintain it."

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