Cheaper, Better Connectivity Puts Wind in Global Marines Sails

Switch to VSAT Cuts Connectivity Costs, Gladdens Crew

It’s one thing to modernize your own communications while dramatically cutting your costs. Now imagine the competitive advantage to be gained if you could do that for clients as well! At Global Marine Systems, all it took to turn such a scenario into a reality was a sea change to broadband connectivity.

The UK-based sub-sea fiber-optic cable repair company recently slashed its monthly connectivity bill, and subsequently, that of its clients, from as much as $20,000 a month per ship when huge amounts of data were transmitted and received, to a fixed rate of a relatively mere $3,000, by making the switch from an L band dial-up system to “always on” KU-band VSAT technology.

Even better, when the company vessels are in port for three or four months, Global Marine has worked out a deal with its VSAT service provider, Sea Mobile, which will further cut the $3,000 monthly cost for the idling ship in half, according to Michael Finnerty, a project manager with Global Marine Systems who manages the VSAT program. (Portside access to local broadband cable and telephone lines obviates the need for the VSAT connection.)

Headquartered outside of London in Chelmsford, with an office in Singapore, the company has nine vessels “dotted around the world,” repairing and laying sub-sea fiber-optic cable, as well as an energy division that lays power cable for wind farms and other clients. Five of those vessels are currently equipped with KU Band Satellite technology, and three more vessels are slated for installation this quarter.

Pay-By-The Minute Gotchas

Global Marine had been steaming along, using the SAT-B system’s L band dial-up connection linked to the main office through a company called Selex, which was run through Inmarsat. When there were emails to send, or data to synchronize, ship personnel would dial up the modem and get a connection. They’d start the system up, send the email or data packet and then the service would disconnect. “It’s common practice to set the system up to connect to send stored emails and check for incoming emails twice an hour,” says Finnerty. The service was also used as needed, and was in use probably 250 to 300 days a year. It was hugely expensive because Global Marine was paying by the minute. Given the limited bandwidth over which the data was transmitted and received, the bigger the files sent, the more expensive the transmission – a technical issue and growing trend that set the stage for the company’s eventual decision to upgrade its connectivity. “The SAT-B system is a pretty old system,” says Finnerty, who warns that “if it is not set up correctly, it could stay connected and cost a fortune.”

There isn’t a shipping company out there that isn’t keeping a close watch on operational expenses these days, and Global Marine is no different. When the SAT-B bills chronicled a dramatic up tick in usage, triggering charges as high as $20,000 a month, alarm bells went off. The ships were sending bigger and bigger files, due in part to client requests for information, especially for pictures, and as a result, the files were starting to get too big.

Those factors combined with the amount of time the vessels were spending out of port on operations, and complaints from customers, lead to a decision to “look at any alternative to bring the cost down,” says Finnerty.

“When we go out on operation, we normally have a customer representative on board. They are used to working on laptops connected to the office, and as soon as they got on the ship they were cut off from that communication [except for] very expensive phone calls,” explains Finnerty, adding, “We had numerous complaints about this.”

Also, unlike other sectors of the marine industry, Global Marine vessels typically run with 40-50 personnel on board. In addition to the officers, crew and customer representative(s), there are various departments, such as the deck department, the cable department and a remote operating crew, which handles the submersible equipment.

Clearly, Global Marine’s ships have a substantial need for crew, and specifically skilled crew at that. Hence, notes Finnerty, “Crew retention is certainly one of the issues that drove us. We had no difficulty in attracting crew or officers, but connectivity was a major issue and a complaint when they were at sea. They are much happier now that they have access to instant messaging and other communications.”

Global Marine is happier too. For a fixed rate of $3,000 a month for its VSAT service, it can provide ship personnel with a permanent connection to the internet. “We generally have a couple of computers where they can log in and have access to AOL, IM, Skype, and Yahoo. Whenever they want to send a message, they can,” Finnerty says.

There is a prepaid crew calling system as well, which enables the crew to purchase a card with so many minutes on it. Echoing other VSAT customers, Finnerty says the service is offered to the crew at cost, “There’s no markup, it is whatever Seamobile/MTN charges.”

The ROI Keeps Rolling In

More important from an operational standpoint, the ships’ communications are no longer a cost center. “We’re not hitting the high bills any more, and the cost per day of the vessels has been reduced,” says Finnerty. And from a client relations aspect, under those contracts that call for the client to pay for all running costs of the vessel, being able to hand over a $3,000 bill instead of a $20,000 bill, is another huge plus.

There are other savings to be had, as well. Always on, fixed-rate internet connectivity opens the door to remote diagnostics and computer support. “There was one occasion where I had to fly to a vessel in Indonesia to repair a server and a multitude of other computer issues,” says Finnerty, recalling what had to have been a pretty expensive house call. But the company now has a way to provide antivirus updates and software updates remotely, as well as monitor systems and in some cases, fix computers.

Before, if there were problems, the home IT staff would have had a conversation with the chief cable engineer. He’d sit in front of the computer and wait for instructions from IT. “Now, he can tell us what problem the computer is having, and where possible, we can remotely fix it,” says Finnerty. IT also has a computer set up to automatically do remote patching and anti-virus upgrades.

Also under consideration is the potential for remote engine operation. In the meantime, ship personnel can now use Google to find out whatever they need about engines, medical support, information about a new port of call, where to source spare parts or provisions, says Finnerty. The less tangible aspect of being able to look something up on the Internet is that the action “allows them to operate independently, instead of having to route things through the office.” This in turn frees up home office staff from having to figure out what’s needed and where to get it.

Intangible Values Add Up

It’s intangibles like this that Finnerty says he’d love to be able to quantify, but can’t. But that doesn’t diminish the value-add. In the past, he points out, vessels managed to do what they could. But since putting in the new VSAT broadband system, they’ve been able to do a heck of a lot more. Even something simple, like being able to go on any weather system worldwide for local weather, rather than having to wait for one of the two daily five-day forecasts to come in, can save time, if not money, and improve decision making. “We provide a weather service where we get the local meteorologist’s office to send out two emails a day, and certainly there’s a cost associated with that.”

Global marine uses a mix of VSAT systems, under a three-year service agreement, depending on the need of the specific ship. The ships run different types of charters, sometimes close to shore, sometimes not. Global marine opted for a KU-band service, which is built around a network of multiple smaller footprint satellite beams. Finnerty recall that while the C-band monthly service fee was close if not the same as the KU-band offering, the C-band equipment costs were almost double, mostly likely due in great part to its much large antenna requirements.

In looking at KU-band, Global Marine had to take into account several factors, including KU band’s lower data rates (typically 64Kbps to 1Mbps versus C band’s 128Kbps to 2Mbps), and its susceptibility to atmospheric interference. “We took into account the rain fade, and decided it was an acceptable risk. To date we have had no problems.” The company also uses iDirect’s automatic beam switching technology to compensate for the need to move more often between multiple satellite footprints. The company retains Inmarsat as a backup. “It doesn’t cost anything if you don’t use it, so it’s not worth taking them off.”

Despite the enormous savings the company has already achieved for itself, and its chartering clients, it’s clear that Global Marine Systems has only just scratched the surface of possible applications from it’s move to broadband VSAT communications. Intangible though some of its anticipated pay offs may turnout to be, it seems the sky’s the limit for this shipping line and the ROI from its modernized communications system.

Freelance writer and editor Patricia Keefe has 25 years experience covering high technology and its application to business problems.