Satcom Expands in a Slow Shipping Market

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By Paul Benecki 2016-09-23 21:25:22

The maritime satcom market is changing: large service providers are consolidating; new constellations are coming online; new service packages offer faster connections, more flexibility and more choice than ever. 

From an outside perspective, the downturn in shipping might be expected to put pressure on prices or reduce the number of customers for satcom services, just as it has put pressure on many other parts of the supply chain – but that's not the case, says Matthew Galston, director of product management with Intellian. 

"It's not really a linear relationship with growth in our industry," Galston said, speaking at SMM in Hamburg last week. "Scrapping is happening at 2 percent of the fleet and newbuilds are at 2 to 4 percent, so the number of ships overall is about static. And the push for connectivity is growing. The perception of satellite service is shifting from something that is a cost to something that is a value." 

Eric Sung, Intellian's president and CEO, explains that this is driven in part by the move towards cloud-based ship management and increasing collaboration between the home office and the mariner. "On ships, everything from fuel consumption to navigation has to be collected and communicated to shore so that the operator can manage the ship efficiently. Satellite service is the key pipeline to move this huge amount of information and to enable 'Big Data'-based management," he says. 

To make connectivity more accessible to shipowners, providers are selling service packages "in a way that makes more sense to people, sort of like a smartphone plan . . . and people are upgrading into larger plans because the incremental cost is small but the value is great," says Galston.

The smartphone parallel holds true in several ways. Intellian recently developed a dual-band antenna to allow customers to switch more easily between services – somewhat akin to an unlocked smartphone compatible with data service from either Verizon or T-Mobile, Vodafone or Orange. 

"Users are cost conscious, and the opportunity to create solutions in that space, where there's a bit more openness or agnosticism [about which plan to use] is very attractive," says Galston. 

A new diversity of satellite constellation operators are helping to drive this diversity of choice. Telenor offers regional Ka-band high speed service via its Thor 7 satellite, which covers the North Sea, the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Intelsat is launching its new EpicNG platform with Ku-band spot beams focused primarily on major shipping lanes; the new offering is designed to be compatible with existing Ku-band terminals.

O3B now offers high-speed service in the subtropical latitudes, between 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south, with directed Ka-band antennas on medium earth orbit satellites. They are not geosynchronous, and so as one satellite passes into range and one passes out of range, continuous service requires a hand-off – meaning that each user must install two sophisticated antenna terminals.

Wouter Deknopper, vice president and general manager for the maritime division of competing satellite operator Iridium, says that his firm is launching a higher-speed version of its established low earth orbit network. Iridium’s equipment footprint is as far as possible from O3B: it does not require a stabilized shipboard antenna at all. Its Pilot terminal is a compact device without gimbals or tracking system, and while it does not offer Ka-band or Ku-band speed, Deknopper suggests that it excels at reliability and will be getting faster over time as the firm invests in its satellite fleet. Deknopper also notes that Iridium's low earth orbit fleet is the only option for full coverage of the poles and all points in between.

Drew Brandy, senior vice president of market strategy for the maritime division of Inmarsat, says that the longstanding supplier of satellite connectivity positions itself as a single solution provider, regardless of geography. "Our customers need continuity and consistency, and they want to be able to have service no matter where they are on the globe. Most other operators are developing regional services which are targeting a select group of users," he says. Inmarsat's FleetBroadband has long covered all common sea lanes at reasonable speeds, and the firm has launched a new branded Ka-band/L-band service called Fleet Xpress, which bundles high speed data with a robust backup. All Ka-band services can be affected by rain fade in foul weather, and so Fleet Xpress comes with traditional FleetBroadband L-band coverage to take over when needed. 

Service provider Marlink offers another way to get both high speed and a backup system: it sells both Iridium 128 kbps coverage, available at all latitudes, and also Marlink’s higher-bandwidth Sealink brand of services, which includes a variety of C-, Ku- and Ka-band options from several satellite operators. 

Competition in SOLAS communications

Iridium is also seeking certification for its products to be installed as part of a GMDSS emergency communications suite. The satellite portion of GMDSS has historically belonged to Inmarsat alone. 

Iridium's Deknopper asserts that if approved, the system would bring choice to the market, and he says that shipowners have expressed interest in having a new option. Drew Brandy of Inmarsat says that his firm is not opposed to Iridium's entry into the space, so long as their new offering meets IMO standards. However, he emphasizes that "this service is about saving lives," and points to his firm's long track record of reliability as the sole GMDSS satcom provider. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.