‘GATR in the wild’ or ‘Star Wars and GATR’s’

by Jon Thompson on January 30, 2009

A GATR in Afghanistan

I apologize for the extended absence but I’ve been getting hammered by a cold and while I did manage a few posts earlier in the week I haven’t bothered to check if they are actually readable.  I apologize if they are incoherent babble.  I have an appointment with a doc today so I am home for a bit before heading to the hospital.  Hopefully, they’ll give me something to kill whatever I’ve got.  Weird thing is I am pretty sure my new doc is the husband of a childhood friend.  Strange how small the world gets as we get older.

I remember once sitting down at a table outside of a shwarma shop in Jerusalem next to a nice looking guy with a camera who was clearly a tourist.  It was the early 90’s and I was visiting a friend who was studying at the university in Tel Aviv.  I had just made my way to Israel from Yemen through Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.  Come to think of it I passed through Rafah at one point and just remember the intensity of the border check process on the Israeli side.  They seemed like Disneyland employees with guns with their blue and white uniforms and incredibly serious demeanor.  Nice enough people just don’t ever leave your bag unattended when filling out the necessary forms.

So, I am sitting at this table and start chatting with this guy while waiting for my friend to come back with the shwarmas that I had forgotten to pack with pickles and all the other good stuff.  It turns out he lives two doors down from my grandmother in the town I grew up in and, to top things off, I saw him again at the county fair the following year.  That was too much so I just avoided him but I still remember him standing there, silhouetted by the Star Wars exhibit with cardboard cut-outs of Stormtroopers and Chewbacca towering over him.  Ok, I am completely off my rocker.  How did I manage to mention Chewbacca and Disneyland in a story about VSAT’s in Afghanistan?  Ok, what the hell, I just saw this and it is the perfect cherry for my nutty sundae:


So that I don’t crucify myself with post I’ll just get to the point.  I was reading this Danger Room post and decided to click through on the links to the Fab Lab website.  I noticed in one of their posts that they are using GATR‘s, the VSAT beachballs, and did a searched for all related posts.  What I found was a pretty good collection of real life experiences with the GATR system.  I have been critical of GATR’s in the past.  In all fairness to the GATR team I have never had to use the system.  However, I am not sure these posts paint a very rosy picture of the system.  For example:

The plan is to test out the new LNB (and modem) on the existing small ball, which is probably fine though really looking bedraggled.  Inshallah with pretty much a brand new everything (LNB, BUC, modem) we’ll find the s/c and ping the world… then take a deep breath and dismantle the feed to move it to the big ball and hope we find the s/c again.

GATR thinks the LNB might have been damaged when the entire feed fell off the ball in a big windstorm.  It’s perplexing because this thing – about the size of a piece of “sidewalk chalk” – is just a solid rectangle, no moving parts and it doesn’t have an obvious ding or scratch marks on the surface.  We’ll ship it and the smaller ball back to Alabama for a post-mortem.

Shipping pieces to Alabama?  Ugh.  Here’s another gem:

As far as I know that has been the only ball-related outages but there are other humans here with knowledge of the ball and as I mentioned I haven’t been here during the day for the past few days.
Due to visa and flight issues with our inbound travellers, I have been making trips to Kabul and haven’t gotten a chance to call the NOC to do the Tx peaking.  I’ll do that tomorrow AM; I got $40 in phone cards today so I should be able to sustain a few minutes’ call to the NOC.

$40 for a few minutes?  I remember sitting in the Chadian desert burning Thuraya minutes talking to Australia while trying to figure a problem with our Inmarsat RBGAN.  Not a lot of fun.  I am wondering if there isn’t a competent VSAT installer in Kabul, or even Jalalabad, who provide service and who you could call for tech support.  (Anyone? Anyone?)  Seems like a legacy system might still be the best bet if they are available.  I’ve never worked there so I’ll rely on local wisdom.

I am hoping that Amy will somehow magically find this post and let me know if there are other VSAT options in Jalalabad.  Kudos to her and her team for fighting the good fight.  One thing is for sure, if you don’t have someone on your team as technically competent as Amy it looks like you are going to be up a creek if you just dropped $50,000 on a GATR and lugged it out to the field.

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The folks at Fab Lab really like their GATR! | Aid Worker Daily
February 1, 2009 at 8:24 pm

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe January 30, 2009 at 11:31 am

I’ve been following the Jbad fablab for awhile, and there are no other comms options for internet connection at this time. The gatr they have is an earlier model and has been performing for about 2 years. Newer models are not that bad in terms of set up. I’m not a tech expert, but I managed to get one inflated and connected during a tech demo at the pentagon. See the danger room post about it: http://blog.wired.com/defense/2008/10/fast-cheap-and.html

ken January 30, 2009 at 4:10 pm

having found your blog.. ive enjoyed reading your posts.
let me share : my name is ken, im the cat that set up the GATR at the Taj Mahal Guest House in Jalalabad.
I dont work for gatr, im just a volunteer geek that supports a Rotary Club Sister Cities Project there. It was a simple one hour process, and we went from stone ages, to the Phat Pipe! //

The environment that this beach ball has withstood is amazing. Ive been there in the Wind and Sand Storms..and in the blistering heat.. as the ball brilliantly self adjusts and keeps pinging. Is GATR for a long term set up, probably not. You always want a rigid dish with solid service. But as an interim Broadband solution, theres nothing like it.

Sure we did have a problem with a severe wind storm knocking the LNB off.. (your photo).. (it also blew away half our guest house tiki bar..) but that problem was actually field repaired.. by the Guest House manager using some creativity and ingenuity. And again, was back online and serving up 1.8megs down 400k up…

your “quotes” are in reference to the second downtime around christmas that occured.. and these things.. do occur. Amy was able to isolate the problem, and put it back online.


Todd Huffman January 30, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Hi Jon

I’ve used GATR’s on multiple occasions in the field, including setting up the one you are discussing in Afghanistan, and so with all due respect I think your comments are a bit off the mark. I’d be happy to have a conversation with you about them so you can understand the tool and when it’s appropriate to use.

For the record, I do not work for GATR or have any connection to them other than using their products occasionally. I don’t own one myself, I’ve always used other people’s.

In short, the GATR is for when you need portable broadband internet and . It is NOT a long-term solution. The GATR in Jalalabad has been running for years (I don’t actually know the specific uptime), much longer than you’d want to use it for in a normal situation.

It’s very fast, no complaints. Once during a very high windstorm the connection did go in and out, and it had to be repositioned after the winds died down. It performed admirably, and it’s a sturdy piece of equipment.

In my opinion it’s a stellar piece of machinery. The first time I set one up it took me about 15 minutes, though it does require some training and you do need to read the instructions, so don’t go into the field without practicing!

That said, it has it’s limits. If you’re looking for a long-term installation you probably want a hard dish. It’s also not as hand-portable as a BGAN, so you wouldn’t want to set it up for say a 5 minute transmission.

Feel free to e mail me questions… and I’d be happy to write more if you want a post on your blog from someone who has actually used it. huffmantm@gmail.com

Jon Thompson January 30, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Joe, Ken and Todd-

Many thanks for all the comments. I was hoping people with firsthand knowledge would come forward and comment. I got more than I could ask for.

It sounds as if the set-up is straightfoward and the unit is fairly durable. The main question for me is: Is it worth the $50,000? Typically, VSAT’s are billed on a monthly basis with costs running the gamut while BGAN’s run $4-8/MB. However, the upfront cost for a BGAN is only $2,500. With the proper filters (squid, etc.) you can cut the costs way down and if you are only popping mail, with an occasional Skype call, you can cut way back on your usage. The remote antenna means you can weather most storms.

While I am not sure what the monthly rate is for the GATR on the Taj is I imagine you’d need to keep it on the roof for at least a year to recoup the upfront costs. I am sure it is a great piece of kit but unless they are giving them away I don’t see how it is more than a military purchase. Also, in the story there is a bit about the budget being about $160,000 for 2008. If the GATR costs the $50,00 that I think it costs I would only say that I hope it was a gift from a donor. While the GATR may be a simple and durable alternative to the typical VSAT I am not sure aid agencies could justify the expense unless substantial non-profit discounts are given by the company.

Thanks for all the info and Todd I will take you up on your offer to write a full piece. I am guessing you two know each other as you both had hands on the same unit?



Amy January 31, 2009 at 10:04 am

Hi Jon,

I did indeed find your blog and comments about the GATR which seems to be a piece of equipment you’ve been courting for some time. Others have beaten me to responding, but obviously you would have gotten a better idea of the system if you’d written to me directly asking about it – or come out for a visit. From a couple of daily blog entries you’ve gotten an unfairly grim picture of the GATR system. For example, what you didn’t point out (and I didn’t explicitly write about ’cause it a blog not a review) are the months that the system stayed up with zero human intervention despite really cruddy environmental circumstances (60+ C to 0- C, really really high winds and harsh rain, even a couple of good sized earthquakes). Indeed, the small ball was sad and bedraggled looking on the outside but the reflector (on the inside) was obviously fine. If you’re considering a ball for long term installation I would suggested a tarp just to keep the brunt of the elements off of the ball fabric. You didn’t observe that I’ve managed to maintain my/the lab’s blogs and massive uploads, video conferencing, real time design work, and so forth, all through the GATR system. Our entire FabFi network funnels back to the GATR. Honestly I’m (we’re) pretty happy and grateful.

I hadn’t thought of it the way you put it – as in, “ugh, shipping back to Alabama”. I wrote those lines thinking it was rather awesome that the company was tightly coupled with us – calling me at slightly inconvenient hours to walk through troubleshooting, dropping everything to help get the system back up, even sending a second “spare” of everything so that we could step through each possible problem in the system without delay.

In fairness, there are some areas that could be technically better. These are all things that GATR folks probably feel unfairly beat up about because we’re utilizing this thing “against manufacturer recommendations”. GATR offered (begged) to fly me out to Alabama several times to get some training but my schedule in the USA never allowed for it – nonetheless the laminated flip card booklet was enough to bring the system up / back. I actually think it’s easier than the GATR folks think it is. The hardest things to do are: 1) figure out your magnetic declination, 2) reach the zipper on the bigger ball, and 3) attempt to be patient and use light touches on the diverter valve for the blower. With the exception of the ideal total and differential pressures (which I’ve written on the meter with a Sharpie), absolutely everything can be gotten to experimentally so long as you have a vague mental model of the complete system. That statement probably caused a minor panic attack back in Alabama…

Many pieces of the system are from other (non-GATR) manufacturers. In the end the December failure was with the modem, not manufactured by GATR and having nothing to do with the ball, but we’ve sent the modem back to Alabama where they’re learning from whatever happened. That’s saying a lot because once we determined with a spectrum analyzer that there was no problem with the ball or the feed assembly, GATR could have said “sorry, please call the modem manufacturer”.

My biggest complaint with the system is probably the cheapest – the blower. The filter on the poor thing really struggles with the clay-soot-humidity mix we’ve got in Jalalabad. Fixes are simple, just pre-filter the air presented to the filter or extend the hoses to get the blower off the ground. I wish you could lie the blower box on it’s back instead of stoop in front of it to read the meters. It would be nice if the blower didn’t have to run continuously because of intermittent power issues at our site (we have the blower, modem, servers, drives, and APs on UPSes, which takes care of the problem too). That’s actually an upcoming FabLab project, as soon as I get a little free time we’ll make a blower control circuit using the lab’s Atmel Tiny processors, turning on the blower to front and rear halves only to maintain the correct pressures (we’ve found a lot of margin in the system.) That statement probably also caused a little panic attack in Alabama. 🙂

Take into consideration that we’re operating in an environment where our server shorted out because mice (or ants?) ate the plastic insulation off of the cables INSIDE the box. I am not a professional VSAT installer and we are not a commercial ISP. GATR enthusiastically allowed rookies to take their ball out for a spin in an inhospitable place. If you go back in my blog to the summer, there were periods of great frustration with it on my part. A lot of it has to do with us being on the very edge of coverage, some of it stemmed from some laziness in bringing sufficient weights up to the roof (did I mention: 60+ C!). Once I bit the bullet and actually engaged the mechanical engineering part of my brain and reset the anchors more ideally (which included moving the ball to a more convenient location on the roof), the ball didn’t need human intervention for months until the modem problem. I think it’s fair to say that there is a learning curve to installing and keeping the system up long term, but now on this end of the experience I could confidently bring up another one without so much folly.

For the record, at some point in all VSAT setups you need to call the NOC for a Tx peaking. It wasn’t tech support. We didn’t need tech support until the problem was an internal one with the modem.

I echo everyone else’s offer to provide additional assessment of the GATR. It seems it might be best if I write a review of our experiences in particular for users like you; your focus on the kinds of details of interest would be helpful.

at fabfolk dot com

ps — I personally haven’t looked recently but I believe the bandwidth available on Inmarsat is way too small for our needs. The FabLabs are a global network with live multi-point video connections through the day for teaching and collaboration. The ideal connection for this is around <2Mbps down and 485kbps up. Additionally, we share the bandwidth via the FabFi network to precede natural growth and I think the Inmarsat conn is again too small for any significant fan out.

Adam B July 22, 2011 at 8:41 am

I really enjoyed the post. Speaking of which, now in 2011, a company called JPI Worldwide recently installed VSAT internet service at a couple of the FOB’s near Jalalabad. Everyone is quite happy because prior to that, everyone only had Internet access at the MWR.

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