Satellite calling and data connectivity give enterprises with employees stationed at the ends of the earth more options for keeping in touch, but balancing price and performance can be a tricky equation.
The latest major offering in the field comes from Verizon Business, which has partnered with Thrane & Thrane to offer satellite-powered mobile broadband and voice services. Users connect either a phone or broadband-ready device to a satellite receiver described as the size of a small book, from which they connect to the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN), operated by INMARSAT, which is capable of download speeds of almost 500 Kbps.
Brownlee Thomas, a principal analyst with Forrester Research, said that adding the satellite service to Verizon's portfolio was an obvious gap filler.
"The reality is you have a lot of places, even in the U.S., where you don't get anything else," she said, noting that Verizon had already offered some satellite services with Tachyon. What made this offering appealing, she said, was its compact size and flexibility.
"What's different from [satellite service vendors] Globalstar and Iridium is you can put it on a rooftop or a window and use a $10 phone with it, or you can use expensive Wi-Fi devices," Thomas said. These qualities make it a good temporary installment solution.
Verizon is aiming the devices at several diverse markets, including financial, energy and construction segments. Thomas said one obvious demand for the service would be event-driven scenarios, such as a college fair signing up students for bank accounts, which create a temporarily high demand without necessarily having a ready data infrastructure.
Because the service costs relatively little to deploy, it can also serve as a backup for sectors that demand a connection, even if a stray lawnmower or pesky power outage stand in the way.
Verizon's service, which the company has dubbed Global Broadband Satellite Access, would probably not find a strong market in governmental emergency response, Thomas said. She added that existing solutions, such as Sprint's ability to quickly deploy networks and give push-to-talk phone access, already meet many emergency demands.
The other draws for the service were price and speed, she said.
The pricing structures vary widely, allowing customers to implement a plan that makes sense for their particular situation. For those enterprises needing the service only as a backup, a relatively small fee is charged to keep Thrane's equipment ready to go.
Thomas said these competitive pricing options will allow enterprises to write off the devices and services over a shorter timeframe: For example, a deployment may take two years instead of the five that much more expensive, competing options might take. The shorter write-off time means it is easier to make the business case for the deployment, which may fuel adoption of Verizon's service.
Finally, because Verizon provides its service through BGAN, it is able to offer much higher speeds than many competing services, which often rely on older satellite networks designed for voice.
Though versatile, Verizon's offering is not the only game in town. Iridium and Globalstar remain the established names in satellite communications, and both companies continue to innovate in the services they offer and the markets they target.
"Right now, we're going through a transition where we're building a brand new network," said Dennis Allen, senior vice president of U.S. sales and marketing for Globalstar. Because of this transition, some of Globalstar's coverage is periodic and only available 60% to 70% of the time, he said. To compensate, the company is currently offering "unlimited" calling plans, starting at under $50, which also include data transfers.
With advertised data speeds of 9.6 Kbps, Globalstar cannot compete with Verizon's offering in terms of bandwidth, but the data is unlimited and the service costs about as much as simply maintaining a line -- before voice and data charges -- with Verizon. It is not a service for those who need a great deal of bandwidth or 100% uptime, but for connecting remote offices, it is a value that is hard to match.
Allen said Globalstar's network should be fully upgraded by 2009, after which old pricing schemes will return.
Globalstar also offers a wide variety of devices that can be deployed for special cases, such as automated tracking when a cargo bay door is shut. These devices can be configured to go dormant for months until a specific trigger action occurs, saving both energy and bandwidth costs until they are needed.
Allen said one of Globalstar's hottest products had strong cross-over appeal for both consumers and enterprise. The SPOT Satellite Messenger is a stripped-down device with four buttons. It can dispatch help requests to either 911 or friends and family, including a Google maps link; it can send updates that all is well to defined individuals; and it can send updates on an expedition or trip's progress.
While positioned primarily for outdoorsmen for whom it could be the difference between life and death, the device is increasingly popular with enterprises that must send out personnel alone as a means of tracking employees and ensuring their safety, Allen said.
That device, while quite specialized, could easily fill a need for enterprises seeking to improve safety without sinking the budget: Service is $100 annually, with another $150 to purchase the device itself.