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For BGAN users – using the Web affordably
An antidote to $4 Web pages (and up)

By Gregg Swanson
February 12, 2009

We are often asked how to control costs using BGAN (and up through 2008, its forerunner, the RBGAN). 
With budgets tighter than ever in 2009, we decided to revisit this topic.   In a recent test using a Sabre BGAN, we found one new solution and a couple
of helpful tips for BGAN users who
want to visit Web sites.


In 2007, we published one of our most popular articles, “Holding down usage over RBGAN and BGAN – 11 tips for controlling your costs.”  The recommendations from Eric and Mike are still valid, and the article has been recently updated).  We welcome additional tips and your comments also, to info@humaninet.org.

If you are not a BGAN user, but considering one, please contact us at the same address.

The bottom line of our test – lessons learned:

1.  Watch the Usage page on Launchpad, which you can trust.  In every case, the amount was verified with the service provider database, within a small margin.

2.  (key) Do your own test, downloading your favorite Web pages and noting how many kilobytes (Kb) each page requires, on the Usage page of Launchpad.

3.  Contact your service provider to find out how to restrict usage to specific URLs or servers.  This is sometimes called a “firewall” or “dashboard” function, which allows you to choose which Web sites to “whitelist” (allow) or “blacklist” (disallow).

4.  To economize, try our recommendation below, which utilizes a Firefox browser feature, and also (obviously) minimize Web browsing, except for text-based pages that you know are “lightweight” and use only a few kilobytes.

And now, for those who want the details, the rest of the test:

The setup.   I used an Addvalue Sabre I BGAN loaned by Medical Teams International (thanks to Michael Achtermann and the MTI folks).  The usage was from a sim card donated by Inmarsat and enabled by Vizada.  The new “Americas” satellite is 32 degrees elevation, much nicer than the 5 degrees we used to have, from our “BGAN hill” here in West Linn, Oregon.  It was cloudy with occasional showers.  (Always keep a plastic sheet with your BGAN.)

I got a good signal, five bars on Launchpad, and the device registered automatically.  The Standard IP connection came up flawlessly, and I was online.  I checked the Usage page on Launchpad, and discovered this:

Observation #1: the BGAN utilizes 50-90 kilobytes (Kb) in just getting connected.  Assuming a per-Megabyte rate of $7.00, that is 35 cents to 63 cents, just to connect.  This is sometimes called “overhead,” the data that transfers up and down just so the BGAN can “shake hands” with the satellite and the ground station.  (All costs are U.S. dollars and cents.)

Note: I did not include these “startup kilobytes” in my calculations below.

Observation #2: you don’t have to shut down the BGAN to initiate a new session.  Just shut down Launchpad, and the connection is broken.  You can leave the BGAN in place, with power on.  But it’s another 50-90 Kb to get reconnected.  Each session will be recorded in your billing statement.

First test run, full graphics.  After zeroing out the Usage again, I began the test by opening a Firefox browser window and going to www.humaninet.org, to begin a series of 10 preselected Web pages on five sites: HumaniNet, Medical Teams International, Mercy Corps, ReliefWeb, and www.google.com.

Observation #3: there is enormous variability in Web pages.  Web experts know this, since Web sites are designed for different purposes.  But when you meter the usage on Launchpad, for a photo-intensive Web site, you can almost hear the $$ being pulled out of your pocket. 

Two examples are BBC World News and www.worldvision.org.  These are fine Web sites, unless you are paying $4 and up to see the home page.  Both home pages used over two megabytes (Mb) each and never did finish loading, after five minutes.  The text message at the bottom of the browser page kept telling me “Transferring data from . . . . “ as it pulled data over the satellite, a chunk at a time.  Expensive.

Note that the usage over satellite is probably greater than over your normal Internet connection, since the data has to take an unusual path, both ways. 

Lesson: over BGAN, avoid the “heavy” Web pages that have a lot of pictures, graphics, and Flash features.  You can use Bookmarks to store the “lighter” pages that you use frequently.

Other Web pages (even with graphics) have simpler designs and use 50 – 150 Kb, but even 150 Kb costs $1.05. 

The total for the “full graphics” sequence, on Firefox, was 1.12 Mb, or 1,120 Kb.  This comes to a total cost of $7.84, or 78 cents per page.

Without graphics, it gets much better.  The Google.com opening page came in at 22 Kb, or 15 cents.  One could picture a coin slot in the BGAN, into which you would have to put a 15 cents to see one page.

Second test run, minimal graphics.  For this run, I started a new session and changed my Firefox settings as follows: Tools, Options, Content – and then deselect the check mark on “Load Images Automatically.”  This made a big difference – a 68% reduction, in fact.

The same 10 pages came in at a total of 354 Kb, which translates to $2.48, or just under 25 cents per page.

However, the good news is that many of the “lighter” pages used only 10-22 Kb, which cost 7-15 cents each.  And they load faster.

Third run, Loband.  We have known of  www.loband.org for some time, and you should try it with your BGAN.  It removes all graphics, but in doing so reformats the Web page considerably, even dramatically.  If a Web page is composed mostly of pictures and links to other pages, you will have to click through to the page with the text you want.  Some sites are difficult to navigate with Loband, and others (such as HumaniNet’s) are no problem. 

But if you often select pages that are mostly text, such as http://groups.humaninet.org/current-updates, you may find Loband just the thing for you. 

In our test, I found that a few of the pages used a lot of kilobytes, which threw off the total and the averages.  Most of the pages came in at 10-40 Kb.  It is very site-dependent, probably having to do with the way the Loband server “fetches” the data from the Web servers.  The data takes a long and slow path, with the command going over satellite to Loband, which then goes to the desired Web site server for the data, and back the same way – and so on, with each increment of data.  Try it first on a conventional Internet connection and see how your favorite Web sites come out, and how long it takes.

Back to the bottom line.  You may find other solutions, and we would like to hear about them.  One of the very best services is UUPLus, www.uuplus.com, who have helped people in remote areas for many years; their software includes a “Web fetch” feature, described here:

UUPlus does not provide an Internet connection capable of browsing the Internet, but we do have the ability to fetch files off the Internet and prepare them for download. This feature is especially useful for downloading weather maps, forecasts, and news off the web.

Don’t forget the well-known “11 Tips” article, especially #4 – try to do your software updates on a land connection, when you are at a nearby Internet café or some other source of Internet.  It is easy to forget to turn off your Windows and anti-virus automatic updates, although if you don’t update for weeks at a time, you may have other problems, and we don’t recommend leaving them off for long stretches.

In conclusion: consider the four “lessons learned” described above, especially #2.  And let us know how it works for you – to info@humaninet.org.  What works for you will probably help someone else – it’s fun to share best practices.


 


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