Internet and Satellite Phones at Burning Man

Yes, part of the idea of going to Burning Man is to escape all the stuff back at home, but the reality is that if something goes horribly wrong back at work, people could loose their jobs – so I carried some satcom gear just to check in once a day. Since there is little posted on the Internet about telecommunications from Burning Man, here’s a contribution of my experience.
BGAN Immersat Ethernet Transceiver at Burning Man

I rented a BGAN Immersat ethernet transceiver and a Iridium satellite phone. The BGAN is really expensive, not only the weekly rental fee by the $10 per megabyte charge. Both work as promised, but no better.

Realistically, light only travels so fast and the trip to orbit, Houston, and back adds substantial lag. The throughput isn’t bad, but the time between packets precludes gaming completely.

The Iridium phone worked every time we tried it. While it is advertised as “you must be able to see the sky” it was able to receive text messages and “hear” incoming calls while inside a metal vehicle and inside my two story wood house. If the phone rang, I would have to go outside so the satellite could “hear” the less-powerful unidirectional handset. The phone does have a lot of compression artifact and the bit rate is low. It sounds like talking on early VoIP applications. While it is “full duplex,” you really need to concentrate on taking turns talking because your conversations are half a second or so out of phase with each other. I did have trouble calling some people with fancy pants handsets like Treos, which seem to have their own sample rate that never meshed up. Then again, I have trouble calling those people from analog lines too. The phone worked in sandstorms. I only saw one cellphone that worked at Burning Man. Someone brought a tower and an old analog phone. That tower was scheduled to go off-line on 30 September 2008.

The BGAN Immersat satellite phone worked consistently… consistently slowly, that is. If you needed Internet, it was the best thing out there. If you call up a web page, it might take 5-10 seconds to it to start appearing, but once it started loading it was much faster. Streaming operations worked with the same startup delay.

The system worked great on my Apple MacBook. The software was a little more complex than needed, but was helpful for a first time user. You might not actually need it. The system has a GPS to figure out where you are, then it helps you aim it. There is a magnetic compass on the top (which won’t work if you put it near a big metal thing like your car). It starts beeping and beeps faster as you get closer to the satellite. Our satellite was parked over Brazil and we were nearly at the end of the service range. Packet latency to our servers in New York ranged from 800-2300 milliseconds. Response times were scattered randomly on each packet, but it was consistent. It never dropped a packet. Email was fine. Web pages were like dialup on a 14.4k modem. Using web based programs like Gmail was similarly slow. SSH was painful and I found myself counting keystrokes to move the cursor around and change a little bit of code.

Several other types of Internet connections were supposedly available. I frequently saw people at center camp with laptops and I heard rumor of a 45 megabit microwave connection and another rumor of 3-6 megabit. While I was able to see a lot of access points, only half would give me a DHCP address and the other half could never route for me. Someone said distant sand storms affected the connection. I also saw a few people with WildBlue and Hughes backfeed dishes. Some fancy RVs have gyroscope based systems as well.

In terms of use, I made one small code change that could have waited, sent a few emails and photos, and we checked weather one day when we heard a rumor about Thunderstorms. Several people in our camp were going to leave, so we checked several weather sites and determined it to be just a rumor.

If you get a BGAN, make sure you watch your bandwidth. At $10/MB, automatically downloading that video someone emailed you, your operating system’s automatic update, your podcasts, etc. will run up a multi-thousand dollar bill in a hurry. Turn that stuff off and make sure you have a visual bandwidth meter at all times!

Next year, I plan to take a satellite phone (which ultimately cost less than roaming in Europe) and leave the BGAN behind, though if I go with a large enough group, we might get a Wild Blue and share with other people.

My final word of warning is that sand gets everywhere. I only brought out my laptop when there was no wind and it still got lots of sand in it just from what falls off your clothes and hair. Airtight ziplocks or Pelican cases are a good idea, but ultimately don’t bring any equipment where you would cry if it was utterly destroyed. This is a use for your 5 year old laptop.

Burn on, everyone.

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