Post offices connect with satellite links

The U.S. Postal Service recently kicked off a project to connect remote and small post offices to the agency's telecommunications backbone using a satellite network rather than traditional land-based networks as originally planned.

The effort falls under a larger $3 billion program called the Managed Network Services (MNS) contract, which was awarded to MCI— now MCI WorldCom— almost two years ago. Under MNS, MCI will build a telecommunications infrastructure that will deliver new applications to nearly 34,000 post offices nationwide.

As part of the program, MCI tasked GE Capital Spacenet Services Inc. to build a very small-aperture terminal (VSAT) satellite network to link potentially 26,000 post offices to the USPS' new frame-relay telecommunications infrastructure.

Initially, the USPS intended to connect the offices using high-speed Integrated Services Digital Network technology. The decision to use VSAT technology instead of ISDN was based on performance and availability, said Larry Wills, manager of telecommunication services and program manager of MNS at the USPS.

"VSAT provides a dedicated connection and [offers] significantly higher performance, as far as bandwidth [is concerned], than ISDN does," Wills said. "ISDN also is not available everywhere."

Factoring in management costs, VSAT technology is cheaper than ISDN as a way of providing connectivity, said Dianne Vanbeber, vice president of marketing at GE Spacenet. "Most of our customers come to VSAT for cost savings." Once completed, the USPS VSAT network will be three times larger than existing VSAT networks, Vanbeber said.

The VSAT network will upgrade the USPS' current terrestrial dial-up services in use at post offices across the country. The network will support a wide range of applications including the Point-Of-Service One (POS One) program that will deliver new retail terminals to post offices.

POS One is the first major application that will be supported by VSAT, Wills said. Currently, older terminals at post office counters are stand-alone machines. With MNS and VSAT, the terminals will be connected to a single communications backbone providing access to information stored in other databases. Already, there are 850 sites deployed on the POS One network.

"VSAT is a way to provide services to remote sites and smaller locations quickly and cost effectively," said Wayne Davis, director of the USPS business office at MCI WorldCom. MCI already has replaced the old USPS routed network, which connected just 900 sites, with the MNS infrastructure. By September, about 32,000 postal sites will be connected to MNS, Davis said. A Network Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C., dedicated to monitoring the health of the MNS network is up and running already.

GE Spacenet will install a 1.2-meter (about 3.5 feet) antenna, an indoor unit the size of a modem and cabling to connect the POS One terminals to the network at each post office on the VSAT network. The USPS deal is a service-based contract, which means the hardware, installation, maintenance, spare parts and bandwidth are included in the price, said Larry Simon, director of advanced services at GE Spacenet. He added that this typically is not how VSAT services are procured. GE Spacenet would not reveal the contract value.

MNS is the largest Internet Protocol network in the country and one of the largest in the world, said Warren Suss, president of Warren H. Suss Associates. "This is a vital operational network for what the Postal Service is doing today and what it will be doing tomorrow in terms of introducing more competitive services," Suss said. "So [the agency] is making sure that even at remote locations they have a guaranteed way of providing connectivity."

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