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Farm Credit Bank of Texas saves with satellites.

The Texas Farm Credit District is part of a nationwide system of farmer-owned financial institutions that provide credit and other financial services to the agricultural community. The district serves approximately 55,000 members in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

Farm Credit Bank of Texas (FCBT) provides mortgage and loan services to thousands of farmers and ranchers in this four-state district. The bank's mortgage and loan affiliates, known as Federal Land Bank Associations (FLBAs), use IBM terminals or personal computers to communicate financial data with FCBT's IBM AS/400 host computer in Austin, Texas.

Until recently, FCBT was using a terrestrial network to communicate with the FLBAs, most of which are in rural areas. This dedicated analog leased line network was very costly and tariff increases could not be projected from year to year.

The quality of terrestrial services was inconsistent in some areas, and it was taking too long to get the terrestrial services installed and operational. Further, if a network outage occurred, FCBT had to rely on several different phone companies to handle the problem, which decreased network availability.

After exploring the cost of expansion into Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, the bank decided to convert from land-based lines to satellites in January 1990.

FCBT chose AT&T Skynet Clearlink Service provided by AT&T Tridom because VSATs (very small aperture terminals) are generally more cost-effective, easier to install, more reliable and more flexible than terrestrial alternatives.

Tridom was specifically selected as the VSAT vendor because of AT&T's strength and backing.

Like any other wide area data network, VSAT networks are involved with the passage of data between distant computers.

Movable Dishes

"Our satellite dishes are not fixed in place," says Mike Jay, communications analyst for FCBT. "If you move to another building, you can take it with you."

It also allows the bank to work with one communications company rather than a lot of small telephone companies.

"The service level and transmission speed is equivalent to the leased line network, and during heavy usage periods it is faster than the leased line," Jay says.

The satellite network also provides effective security features. "No one can just buy a dish, start receiving FCBT data and decipher loans," Jay says. The message is scrambled twice--once at an earth station hub at AT&T Tridom's Marietta, Georgia headquarters, and again through a specialized protocol converter and multiplexer, called the host interface, at the bank's data center in Austin.

Today, FCBT's data communications system allows 52 remote offices to access the bank's general ledger and loan databases, which are maintained on the AS/400 in Austin.

Sixty additional locations with lower traffic requirements use dial-up circuits to access the mainframe. The network also allows bank personnel to send and receive electronic mail from their PCs.

Remote offices communicate with the bank's data center in Austin via AT&T Tridom's shared hub earth station in Marietta. By using a shared hub, the bank's members share both the sophisticated equipment and experienced personnel at this facility, and also have access to AT&T-operated back-up shared hubs in Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles.

Each remote office is equipped with a VSAT, which serves as the interface node between remote PCs and the Clearlink network. FCBT uses either 1.8- or 2.4-meter VSAT antennas, depending on geographic location. Their primary function is to amplify signals to and from the satellite.

All communications between the VSATs and host computer are handled via the Marietta hub. The hub consists of a 9.2-meter antenna which collects signals from the satellite. AT&T Tridom's system of shared hubs is connected to a network management system at the Network Operations Center (NOC) in Marietta, which provides functions such as fault determination and problem resolution, generation of performance statistics, configuration management, capacity planning, and change management.

The hub communicates with FCBT's host through the interface located at the bank's computer center.

The host interface guarantees end-to-end data integrity and complete network management visibility. It also provides protocol conversion and gateway services between FCBT's host and the Clearlink network, just as the VSAT provides protocol conversion and gateway services between remote sites and the Clearlink network.

Protocol emulation at both ends of the network improves response time by eliminating poll propagation time from the network.

While FCBT is currently using the VSAT network for data applications only, the bank is also exploring broadcast video applications as a practical and cost-efficient means of training and holding meetings in remote areas. Adding video to an existing VSAT network makes good business sense and can actually help justify the cost of a VSAT unit because the same dish can be used for both data and video.

"It would save quite a bit in the sense that all the participants would not have to fly to Austin for a meeting," Jay says. "I think it is cost-effective. We already have the hardware."

In its first year of operation, the VSAT network will save FCBT approximately $100,00 in communication costs, with annual savings of $250,000 anticipated after the first five years of operation. On top of a very positive payback, the bank is getting a reliable and flexible network for their money.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Satellite Networks
Author:Gilson, Rodney
Publication:Communications News
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:The future look of ship-to-shore.
Next Article:Auto industry leads VSAT boom.

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