Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) first started to be used in the commercial sector in the 1980s. The first commercial VSATs were relatively expensive and were primarily used by large corporations for private communication networks. As the technology developed, VSAT systems became more affordable and as a result, their use became widespread. By the 1990s, VSATs were being used to connect remote offices, oil rigs, mines and other sites that were difficult to reach with traditional communication networks. Fast forward to 2023 and VSATs now provide vital connectivity to users around the world, often in regions where there is either limited or a complete lack of cellular or wired coverage. VSAT technology also plays a critical role for connectivity on the move, such as in maritime vessels and aircraft.
As VSAT technology has improved, it’s become more affordable and easier to install. Satellites are more efficient and modem technology has improved to enable better performance including better error corrections and modulation. These developments have made it possible to use more compact antennas that are easier to transport and install. Additionally, advancements in software and automation have helped to simplify the installation, configuration and troubleshooting process. Despite these developments, the logistical challenges associated with installing and maintaining VSAT systems, particularly in remote regions, still remain and can be difficult to navigate.
VSAT systems require an unobstructed line of sight to the satellite. This requirement to position the terminal in a location where there are minimal obstructions can make the installation more complex. Installing a VSAT system in a densely forested area or a region with high-rise buildings may be challenging because of potential obstructions caused by trees or tall structures. In an urban built-up environment, we have in the past had to source and commission a local welder to fabricate a bespoke mount for attaching to the top of the tallest nearby building. When installing a VSAT terminal in a rural setting, depending on the topography, the only suitable place to install the equipment may be at a mountain location and accessing such a site will probably not be straightforward.
This access issue is a key challenge associated with VSATs because they are typically used in areas where communication networks are limited or non-existent. Those areas are often remote, and hard to reach, and transport infrastructure is also often poor. This makes it difficult and time consuming for engineers to travel to the sites, and at the same time it is also difficult to transport parts and equipment to the site for installation and ongoing maintenance.
Additionally, installing a VSAT system requires specialized knowledge, making it necessary to have trained technicians to install and configure the equipment correctly. In many regions, there is a shortage of skilled technicians working in this field. In some cases, technicians may have to travel long distances to reach remote sites, which tends to result in longer installation times and higher installation costs.
The industry has also had to manage additional logistical complexities arising from world events, most notably, Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war. These events have impacted just about every sector in one way or another, and the VSAT industry has not been immune to the resulting pressures. The industry has experienced supply chain disruptions and also increased commodity prices. These disruptions have made it challenging at times to obtain the necessary equipment and component parts required to install and maintain VSAT systems. Unsurprisingly, this has often led to delays and increased costs.
As a means of reducing costs and managing many of the logistical complexities highlighted above, we’re increasingly seeing VSAT service providers taking a different approach. Rather than moving engineers around the globe, it is much more cost-effective to establish networks of trained, local field engineers. There are a number of benefits to this approach. Firstly, there are significant cost savings to be had because travel costs which would often include flight costs, are either no longer required or are vastly reduced. Equipment is more also likely to be available nearby, thus avoiding costly shipping costs. Delays are avoided because engineers are closer by and able to get to the site quicker.
In addition, as locals, these engineers will be familiar with the area, in terms of geographical, regulatory and even cultural considerations. Therefore, they will be better able to quickly respond and resolve problems relating to installation and repair requests. Having this local presence and knowledge on the ground can help to resolve even the most difficult logistical problem.
This approach enables service providers to minimize costs, which is particularly important in the current climate, in the face of rising costs and global economic pressures. VSAT service users also benefit from this operating model because in the event that the system experiences a fault resulting in downtime, having local engineers on hand means that the system will be repaired much quicker so service disruptions will be minimized.
VSATs today play a critical role in connecting individuals, businesses and whole communities in places where there often is no other alternative. While advancements in technology have made VSAT systems more affordable and easier to install, logistical challenges associated with installation and maintenance still persist, particularly in remote regions, where VSAT is so often needed. Establishing networks of local field engineers can help to address many of the difficulties encountered, and at the same time can reduce costs, and speed up installation and response time. The increasing need for connectivity is driving growth in the global VSAT market, and this model of service provision will no doubt support the market to grow in the years to come.