GATR and ‘The value of a flyaway VSAT’

by Jon Thompson on February 3, 2009

I thought this comment deserved it’s own post.  It looks like David and I have chewed some of the same dirt (I’ve always wanted to say that) and I remember well the whole pole affair in Banda and how I took more than a few expats down to MAF’s invaluable tech center to get the computer srubbed by great folks like Jeremy Bonnett of UUPlus.  I remember marveling at the size of the bracket they used to mount that massive dish on and I also remember the steady stream of grateful people that passed through their center all day long.

I put a lot of stock in comments from people like the Fab Lab team and now David Hoffman.  It is rare that you take a critical look at a gadget and have people rally to it’s defense, especially in the humanitarian aid industry.  We’re kind of like the Marines in that we know what works, what we like and we just keep using it no matter what kind of new stuff comes down the pike.  So, when no less than FIVE people leave extremely lengthy comments on my site in defense of a VSAT unit that looks like an oversized beachball I think it is time to stand up and take notice.  In my defense, I never dismissed the GATR, I simply pointed out what I perceived to be it’s flaws namely the exorbitant price tag.  The figure of $50,000 I took from this PopSci article where they interviewed the inventor, Paul Gierow:

The GATR-Com’s $50,000 price tag makes it an unlikely accessory for most solo travelers. But its cost is far less than that of other remote-deployable satellite antennas, not to mention the savings it provides in transportation costs.

Indeed it is an unlikely accessory for most solo travelers and for that matter most aid agencies.  I can’t think of a single agency that could justify the expense, certainly not in this day and age, and so while I laud everything that David is up to I still lament the fact that GATR is a product that is thoroughly out of reach for most of us.  Maybe NetHope will step up and snap up a couple of these units and deploy them during the next emergency?  For now I think we’ll need to rely on David, Telecoms Sans Frontieres and our own BGAN’s to get the job done.  Here is David’s write-up:

I’d like to add some thoughts and perspective to this discussion on the GATR inflatable VSAT antenna. I work for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a non-profit that provides aviation and communication services around the globe. In August 2006 I first encountered the GATR at Strong Angel III. I was immediately impressed with the concept and technology, and knew it had great application for disaster response and humanitarian aid work.

In January 2005, under contract for AirServ, MAF set up two Internet Cafes on Sumatra. Both Internet Cafes were to serve UN staff as well as NGO workers. One in Meulaboh, and the other in Banda Aceh. We shipped two VSAT systems from the US, both of them large 2.4m dishes with C-band RF components. It was quite a chore getting them transported quickly, as they were much too large for the airlines. After more than a week, we had the boxes in Medan, and flew them across the island in one of our Cessna Grand Caravans.

Meanwhile, our staff in Meulaboh had dug a 3 cubic meter hole in the ground to cement the 9′ long, 6″ Schedule 80 pipe that the dish would be mounted on. We had to search for a couple of days in Medan for that pipe, and have it pre-fabbed so we could use it, then fly it across the island. There was no chance of finding anything like that in Meulaboh. Once the pipe was cemented in the ground, the UN decided that they would be locating their temporary office at a different location! That meant getting another pole from Medan, digging another hole, and losing more time. When we finally started to install the first system, we discovered missing pieces, and had to have them shipped from the US. This cost us more time.

Those with experience in the humanitarian aid line of work know that these long delays are not at all unusual when responding in this sort of situation. Our second install went much more smoothly up in Banda Aceh. However, it was about 3-4 WEEKS after the tsunami, until our VSAT, and the VSATs of the CRS and World Vision, were set up and operating. Meanwhile, TSF was providing limited phone calls and e-mail using RBGAN units, and the high cost was likely subsidized by corporate partners.

Later, in August 2005, MAF responded to the Pakistan earthquake by setting up two Internet Cafes for NGO staff to use. Again, installation and operation was delayed due to missing pieces discovered during install. While waiting for the missing hardware to arrive, MAF provided service to NGO staff using RBGAN units. During a ten-day period we ran up a RBGAN bill of over $20,000!

It is for situations like these that the GATR is perfect–when a humanitarian aid organization needs to get a VSAT transported now, you need to know all the equipment is there, and you need high bandwidth to support a small office or Internet Cafe.

“While I am now convinced that the GATR is a good piece of equipment I still couldn’t justify the expense (I think $50,000) if I was still shopping for a large humanitarian org. For that matter I don’t think any agency would drop the cash on such a purchase. So, for the time being the GATR will probably remain out of reach for many humanitarian organizations.”

I’m not sure where you heard the price point of $50K for the GATR, but that is probably close to the ballpark. The fact is, whether you are pricing out a GATR, a Swe-Dish, a Hawkeye, or any other flyaway VSAT system, you are going to find they all cost a lot of money. Prices for flyaway systems can start as low as $25K for a 1.2m antenna with low-power transmitter, and go to well over $100K for high-end systems. SE Patriot makes a flyaway 2.4m antenna that costs $35K, and comes in six cases with a total weight of almost 800 pounds.

The beauty of the GATR is that you get a 2.4m antenna, with high-power transmitter, in two airline-sized suitcases, and a price that is similar to other flyaway systems with a much smaller antenna. The large size of the GATR antenna means you can get more bandwidth, and do it with less power.

“I would hope that GATR would approach more organizations and let them test drive their rigs as I am sure they would get some pretty good feedback.”

GATR does partner with MAF. In 2007 GATR Technologies sent a 1.8m GATR on the four-month USNS Comfort humanitarian mission to Central and South America. I was trained to operate the GATR, and it was used to support on-shore clinics in Ecuador, Colombia, and Haiti.

Later, in June 2008, two more MAF staff were trained to use the GATR. They operated two GATR systems in September 2008 to aid in recovery operations after Hurricane Ike. MAF and GATR continue to work together to provide communications services for disaster response and humanitarian aid work.

I personally have had the opportunity to use the GATR in five countries and three continents. I’ve transported the system in cars (there is no other 2.4m dish, flyawy or not, that you can fit in your car like you can with the GATR), speedboats, and airliners. I’ve carried it up a ladder to set up on a roof, as well as have set it up in parking lots, a pier, backyards, dirt lots, and open fields. I’ve set it up on one side of a city in the morning, then packed it up in the evening and set it up on the other side of the city for the night. I have found it to be versatile and reliable, and if you have the specific need of mobile high-bandwidth in remote locations anywhere in the world, this is the perfect tool for the job.

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