TCS' Mongoose has a long reach

Automated satellite terminal gives mobile users instant communications

Reliable satellite communications for mobile users have been improving for years. The hardware is smaller, lighter and easier to use and requires less power. But several factors have always made satellite communications more annoying than they should be. Chief among the problems is finding the satellite.

Users of portable very small-aperture terminals (VSATs) previously had to travel with a compass and an inclinometer to determine where to aim the dish. Although most VSAT hardware can tell you when your aim is getting close, trial and error is still the primary way to get it right.

The SwiftLink DVM-90 Mongoose from TeleCommunication Systems (TCS) considerably simplifies the process. This automated satellite terminal earned the Mongoose moniker because it was first developed for the military's special operations forces, known within the community as "snake eaters." Now TCS is offering the Mongoose to civilian agencies and private companies -- anyone who needs instant, reliable communications anywhere. Customers that have already signed on include media organizations, oil field service firms and construction companies.

We tested the Mongoose in a remote part of central Florida between hurricanes with two TCS engineers. We set up the Mongoose on the shore of a lake populated by gazillions of mosquitoes and probably more than a few alligators, although we didn't see any of the latter. The unit's components fit into two 40-pound backpacks, making it fairly easy to take the system into remote areas. You have to provide a power source, which can be 120 volts AC or as much as 48 volts DC. We used a Hyundai sport utility vehicle and some jumper cables.

The Mongoose's setup is easy, which you'd expect from a device that's supposed to automatically acquire the satellite so you don't have to. First we unpacked the Mongoose from one of the backpacks and set it on the ground so that one side faced south -- which works when you are north of the equator, of course. Then we attached the power cable and pressed a button. The machine woke up and elevated partway, then waited for us to attach the antenna. The dish antenna was in the other backpack, and we clipped each of the three parts onto the Mongoose.

After attaching the antenna, we pressed a button and the Mongoose began its auto-acquisition process. Because the device has its own Global Positioning System receiver, it will know where to find the satellite it needs to use. The Mongoose swivels the antenna around, locates a reference satellite and then locks onto the target communications satellite.

While it's doing this, it also rotates the feed horn, which emits the microwaves, so that its polarization matches the satellite's transponder. Finally, the Mongoose announces that it has locked on to the satellite via a message on an LCD screen on a small controller box that attaches to the device.

Once the Mongoose locked onto the satellite, we confirmed that we had a solid 2 megabits/sec data connection using its Ethernet port. We used the pathway for voice and data connections and to view a video feed. It all worked well.

The only problem we had was when we tried to get the Mongoose to see through trees or buildings. Like other VSAT equipment, it won't do that. It must have an unobstructed view of the sky over the equator.

The Mongoose was the easiest VSAT deployment we've had. It provided a solid, reliable connection with excellent bandwidth, and it's small enough to travel as carry-on luggage. The only improvement we could think of would be an antigravity device so we wouldn't have to carry it into the field.

Rash is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who has been covering technology since the late 1970s. He can be reached at wayne@rash.org.

SwiftLink DVM-90 Mongoose

TeleCommunication Systems
(800) 307-9489
www.telecomsys.com

Ease of use: *****

Portability: ****

Durability: *****

Price: ****

Price: The Mongoose costs $95,000 for government users.

Pros: The automated satellite terminal provides reliable broadband communications in a portable, easy-to-use package that can go nearly anywhere.

Cons: It takes two people to carry the Mongoose into the field.

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