First, the basics: VSAT is an acronym that stands for Very-Small-Aperture Terminal. What that means in layman terms is a reliable satellite method of sending and receiving data. VSAT internet in Zimbabwe typically means a 1.2 meter satellite dish, for a home or office user, with an LNB for receiving information (similar to how Dstv works) and a BUC that facilitates the uplink.
Before fiber came to prominence in Zimbabwe this year, VSAT was how all the bandwidth in Zimbabwe was landed by Internet Access Providers’s . This was done with much larger scale equipment than I mentioned above, think the mazoe earth station if you have seen it. Satellite bandwidth is much more expensive than fiber bandwidth, because of the costs associated with launching and maintaining a satellite in space. The change from satellite bandwidth to fibre is the main reason we have seen Internet connectivity prices come down significantly.
VSAT however is still an option for the home user in Zimbabwe. There are some compelling reasons to consider VSAT if you are in the market for broadband at your office or home. And here they are:
If you have recently looked at WiMax, ADSL or even fiber direct to your office, and have found yourself in a “dead zone” or staring at a fibre installation quote north of US $15 000 (yes I’m looking at you Helensvale and Umwindsidale residents!) you should get a quote for a VSAT service.
VSAT coverage in Zimbabwe is anywhere. You can literally get service over 100% of the country. In some circumstances you may find a pesky tree or building in your line of sight, but should these obstacles not be of the movable kind you can usually get service from another satellite with a different elevation or point direction.
VSAT Service is point to point from the HUB (the nerve center at your provider) that provides the service, to your terminal. The nature of this connection makes interception of communication very difficult for a would be hacker.
Most of the services originate from HUBS in South Africa, UK or Europe. If you are using one of these services, the only instance your internet traffic hits Zimbabwe if you are accessing, say, Hotmail, is the one into your VSAT equipment at your premises. Security on your local area network is of course a completely separate issue.
Unlike terrestrial links (the fibre, WiMax and ADSL) that have several points of “vulnerability” like base stations or points of presence (POPs) that need power, or fiber cables that DON’T need a pick through them, your VSAT service will run as long as you can power it.
Due to a combination of the factors above, VSAT is generally a more stable option than the terrestrial cousins. This can be argued, but in my experience with ADSL WiMax and VSAT at home, the VSAT has uptime of 98% compared with 90% for WiMax and 92% for ADSL. These numbers may sound high to you but consider 98% uptime still means about 176 hours of down time a year. And 90% would mean 31 full days of downtime a year!
Before you rush out to buy a VSAT, there is a flip side to this coin! The following reasons should also be taken into account before taking the plunge.
As I mentioned above, VSAT bandwidth is not cheap and is often quite heavily contended (shared amongst a number of customers by the ISP) to make the service look more attractive. The equipment and installation should be about US $1,600 and the services generally start from about US $150 a month for a very highly contended service, or a very low internet traffic limit. You can also get large uncontended services for thousands of dollars a month.
Due to the round trip of tens of thousands of kilometers that your little data packets perform from your computer to the satellite in space, to the hub at the provider’s premises and back, the gap between your click and your data arriving is significant. In technical terms if you ping an overseas server your latency is around 1,000 milliseconds on VSAT compared to just around 300 milliseconds on fiber. This of course varies depending on a few factors, like location of the hub and the number of hops, but allow me to generalize! This latency becomes a big factor if you like online gaming, or are using voice or video chat.
This one is obvious, look at a WiMax unit or ADSL modem, now look at a satellite dish. If space is limited or you don’t want an unsightly dish in your garden or on your house, VSAT is not for you.
Bang for buck
What I mean by this is most providers here are offering deals like free browsing after hours, or no limits on local content regardless of time. Or even that fact that locally hosted content is much faster over a terrestrial link. At the moment most VSAT deals are not inclusive of these kinds of perks, hopefully they will be included as the market becomes more competitive.
One of the big talking points with VSATservices is the legality. The provider of the service needs to pay license fees to the telecoms regulator POTRAZ for the service to be considered legal.
The only definitive way to ascertain this would be to call up POTRAZ, and enquire about the service you are considering installing. Don’t gamble with unlicensed solutions!