A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

BGAN Explorer 500 - Final Thoughts and Lessons Learned

Earlier I wrote about the new BGAN Explorer 500 we were fielding. Well I’m back from the field and the unit is set up and running so I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and give my revised impressions of the unit.

Lessons Learned

  • Ensure you completely set up your account before you go to the field. Some service providers (like ours) want you to log in to their website to activate your account before they’ll allow the BGAN to make a data or voice connection. This is going to be difficult if you are already in the field and have no other reliable connection. I learned that the hard way.

  • Make sure the IT section either removes all proxy settings on the computer you’ll attach to the BGAN or that they give you administrator privileges.

  • Take lots of extra cable. Ten-meter lengths of CAT 5 and telephone cable, plus a similarly sized outdoor power cable should suffice. This might seem like a lot but if you need to use it from inside a bunker you’ll be glad of the extra length.

  • Take backup cables. You never know whose dog will decide to chew through them.

  • It’s also a good idea to have a compass. There is one built in to the unit but it is rather fiddly and, depending on the angle you need to adjust the BGAN to, it can be difficult to read.

Impressions

Software:

Both the OS X and Windows versions of the connection software, called LaunchPad, are easy to install and intuitive to use. Tip: Ignore the installation guide and just follow the installer defaults. The documentation doesn’t seem to be current and you’ll end up with files scattered everywhere.

You can also access the BGAN via your regular browser. It gives you the functionality of LaunchPad plus allows you to make more advanced settings. Be warned though, most users it will find it to be a little more intimidating.

Hardware:

The Explorer 500 itself is pretty much ‘bomb proof’. It held up well to baking sun, monsoon rains, bouncing around the back of the truck, the attentions of a flock of hungry chickens, and a curious mutt named Max.

Overall: I’d recommend the Explorer 500 to anyone looking for a rugged, easily deployed voice and data system.

Pros:

Rugged
Portable
Easy to set up

Cons:

Lengthy and confusing documentation
Most NGOs will find it somewhat expensive

BGAN Explorer 500 Unboxing

The BGAN Explorer 500 is tiny! That is the first thing that struck me when I unpacked it. In fact it is only about half the size of my MacBook Pro. At 21cm by 21 cm and weighing in at 1.3kg it is truly portable.

For those who might not be aware BGAN stands for Broadband Global Area Network. Essentially it allows Internet and telephone connections via an INMARSAT satellite. The portability of this type of equipment makes it popular amongst journalists, disaster response worker, soldiers, and others working in remote areas or areas where the communications infrastructure has been destroyed.

BGAN Explorer 500


The Explorer 500 package I received included the following:

  • EXPLORER 500 BGAN terminal
    • Battery
    • AC/DC power cable
    • Vehicle accessory power adaptor cable
    • Bluetooth handset
    • Handset charging cable
    • CAT-5 LAN cable
    • USB cable
    • CD-ROMs with software and manual
    • “Quick Guide” and “Getting Started” pamphlets

You can connect your laptop to the terminal via USB, Ethernet, or Bluetooth. There are two power jacks, one to charge the terminal itself and one to charge the Bluetooth handset. You can also plug in a regular landline telephone if need be.

My one small quibble with the hardware is with the power cable for charging the USB handset. The terminal end seems quite delicate. I foresee it becoming easily clogged with dust or simply broken off with repeated use.

Software Setup

BGAN LaunchPad software for PCs (Windows XP) is included with the system. Despite the fact that some of the documentation suggests that it is PC only I was able to find a Mac OS X version (and an update) on a hand labelled CD. The documentation also suggests that the system is LINUX compatible but I have no way of testing this so we’ll just have to take their word for it.

Installing the OS X software was a little fiddly. The installer is very Windows like and installed bits and pieces all over the place. Unfortunately where the installer said it was going to install things was not where they were actually installed. When I ran the updater it generated an error that required me to find and open the install log. Come on! If I wanted to do that kind of stuff I’d buy a PC! Luckily the LaunchPad software seems to work fine despite the reported error.

I tried to test the system earlier today without success. Unfortunately the area around my office is cluttered with buildings and trees,not to mention nervous security forces. I wasn't able to get a good line of sight to the satellite so I’ll post more once I suitable open area and really put the system through its paces.

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This work by Kevin Toomer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.
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