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Bigger Pie

Satcom providers feast on soaring demand for broadband.

SpaceX launch rocket
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lofts an SES O3b satellite into orbit (Courtesy SpaceX)

Published Jan 5, 2023 6:33 PM by Paul Benecki

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2022 edition.)

Most of us take connectivity for granted. With few exceptions, high-speed broadband is cheap and ubiquitous in every population center in the industrialized world. Universal 5G/LTE coverage has made all kinds of new efficiencies possible – from Google Maps to IoT asset tracking.

The same revolution is now arriving on the high seas. Demand for broadband on board is rising fast, driven by the needs of crews and ship managers, and new companies are entering the market to compete for a piece of the growing pie.

Demand for satellite connectivity has soared over the past three years. Vessel operators have realized its value in enhancing crew welfare, especially in a tight labor market, and more seafarers than ever have access to the Internet while under way. FaceTime calls with family back home are a great boost for morale and retention, but they require real bandwidth.

Connected, digitally enabled equipment all over the ship – from engines to deck equipment – drives more demand for connectivity. And as the home office pushes for efficiency and lower emissions, the demand for digital interaction between ship and shore is increasing. Thanks to broadband satellite connectivity, company personnel in a shoreside control center can monitor a ship’s operations in precise detail around the clock. If they have the latest video technology, they can even watch the crew work in real time on CCTV – something that was previously impractical due to bandwidth limitations.

"The COVID era has been an accelerant for extending the business space onto the ship,” says Ben Palmer, President of Inmarsat Maritime. “These vessels are multimillion-dollar assets that businesses really care about, and the connection between the boardroom and the bridge is really important. With digitalization and the Internet of Things, we’re seeing the potential to drive both cost and carbon out of the value chain."

Power Users

Cruise lines are the maritime industry’s power users for high-speed broadband, thanks to voracious passenger demand. Since the advent of the O3b medium earth orbit (MEO) satellite service, powered by SES, cruise ships have had access to low-latency data service like never before. The O3b constellation orbits at an altitude of about 5,000 miles, four times closer to earth than its traditional geostationary orbit (GEO) cousins. The shorter distance means digital transmissions take less time to reach the ship's antenna, translating into less lag for the end user.

Low-earth orbit (LEO) constellations take low latency a step further. New LEO satellites like SpaceX’s Starlink constellation circle at altitudes as low as 350 miles, over 60 times closer to earth than their geostationary peers. At this range, real-world latency can be as low as 30-40 milliseconds, approaching cable Internet performance. By comparison, users can expect a lag of more than half a second for a conventional GEO broadband satellite service (and more than a full second for some L-band connections).

That time delay may not matter much to commercial maritime operators, but zippy Internet is a baseline expectation for cruise passengers. “Some of them probably think the ship is plugged in,” speculates one executive.

That’s why the cruise sector is where Starlink is making its first major foray into the maritime industry, serving up the low-latency gigabit bandwidth that cruise ships need to power 4,000 iPhone users. In September, after a positive shipboard trial, Royal Caribbean announced it would sign on for fleetwide installation of Starlink for all its brands. Hurtigruten made a similar announcement the following month. Starlink's distinctive flat-panel antennas have also been spotted aboard an NCL cruise ship, Norwegian Breakaway – an indication of quiet testing in progress.

Disruptor

Since it’s fast and new, Starlink is getting a lot of attention in the market. But there are solid reasons to expect that traditional satcom providers are going to have a critical role in the industry for a long time to come.

The first reason is proven reliability: The oldest incumbents have been in business since the Cold War and have a known track record.

The second reason is technical. For now at least, Starlink terminals only come with a flat-panel antenna. This is great for stable platforms like cruise ships, which follow good weather and are equipped with anti-roll stabilizers. However, an offshore vessel in the North Sea will tend to move around a lot. Fixed flat panel antennas can't pivot, so when the ship rolls hard to one side, the antenna may end up pointing away from the satellite. This is where the familiar parabolic antennas that come with a GEO or MEO satellite service shine since they sit on a motorized mount that keeps the dish pointed the right way.

There’s another limitation for Starlink when the weather gets rough. It operates at the lower end of the Ku-band, a common frequency range for high-speed data. While it offers high bandwidth, this frequency has problems getting through heavy rain, just like X-band radar. By contrast, lower frequency L-band services like Iridium NEXT and Inmarsat ELERA punch through bad weather without difficulty, though they’re slower.

Starlink also has competition in the low-latency LEO space. OneWeb operates a constellation of Ku-band satellites at an altitude of 750 miles, slightly higher than Starlink. Instead of Starlink's flat panels, OneWeb’s terminals use conventional parabolic antennas. OneWeb is available through satcom provider AST and offers a “fiber-like alternative,” according to AST Founder & Chairman Gregory Darling.

Reliability

The maritime industry is conservative when it comes to technology, and dependability carries a premium for safety-critical applications.

Intelsat, the market leader in VSAT, emphasizes reliability for the most important tasks. Industrial-grade robustness may be more important than ever as automation and digitalization take hold, according to Director of Maritime Products Mike McNally.

"Automated shipping will mean a continuous increase in demand for connectivity,” he explains, “and one of the unquestionable requirements will be ultra-reliable high-speed data communications. We’re situated to provide that. And with our next generation of software-defined satellites, we’ll be able to shift capacity to match demand, increasing resiliency."

Antenna manufacturer Cobham Satcom also emphasizes dependability. In partnership with Viasat, Cobham claims to offer the “most reliable high throughput connectivity” in the industry. That service is about to get even more robust with the upcoming Viasat-3 GEO constellation accompanied by a matching portfolio of Cobham antenna systems.

“Expansion of existing GEO constellations such as Viasat-3 and new satellite constellations in MEO or LEO bring more bandwidth to maritime users,” says Henrik Fyhn, Cobham VP & Product Line Director for Maritime, “allowing them to experience better connectivity performance and introduce new applications.”

Hybrid Solutions

Given the broad range of options, the likeliest outcome is not just one dominant LEO or GEO service but a market of "hybrid" services bundled by third-party providers. Top connectivity vendors like Tototheo Maritime and AST already serve up a menu of different constellations for shipowners to choose from, and a hybrid solution pairing multiple modes of connectivity makes evolutionary sense.

It’s the method used for ultra-high-end VSAT. A big cruise ship's high speed Internet setup might have three or more 2.4-meter antennas, all switching between different GEO and MEO connections seamlessly as the vessel moves. The integration is technologically complex, but innovators like Intellian are making it happen.

"It takes a little bit of magic to get these massive signals managed,” says Intellian’s Jon Harrison, General Manager of EMEA, “so we've made what we call the 'intelligent mediator' or IM8. It's a really slick piece of kit that allows multiple control and switching. Multiple modems, multiple connections, multiple antennas, all integrated into one nicely managed box." 

Commercial merchant vessels have ways to get hybrid connectivity too without having to find room for minivan-sized antennas. KVH offers a multi-connection service for merchant shipping with the KVH ONE hybrid system that integrates Intelsat VSAT with cellular and Wifi connectivity. It automatically switches to terrestrial networks when near shore, then back to satellite when out of range.

“It’s up to suppliers like KVH to offer the best possible hybrid solutions available,” says KVH VP of Marketing Chris Watson. “In truth, the maritime market doesn’t care what connectivity options are available. It just wants to be connected at all times at the best possible speeds.”

Starlink can be purchased today as a hybrid service, illustrating how competing services can coexist. "We all have our place,” notes Intelsat’s McNally, “and I think as things calm down a bit, people will realize the strength of a GEO service behind other services in a multimodal solution."

Hybrid Cooperation

The relation between satcom’s incumbents and SpaceX is hybridized in another way. SpaceX’s Starlink division may be a disruptor, but its rocket division is a partner. Thanks to the unbeatable price and reliability of its Falcon 9 booster, SpaceX holds contracts to provide satellite launch services for virtually everyone.

For example, its rockets will soon put the O3b mPower MEO constellation in orbit, installing the hardware of a direct competitor in cruise satcom (for comparison, imagine Pepsi winning the contract to deliver Coca-Cola worldwide!). And it’s not just O3b. SpaceX has also launched satellites for Intelsat, Inmarsat, Eutelsat, OneWeb, Viasat and Iridium. While there may be some competitive jostling over Starlink, the incumbent constellation operators have a firm relationship with the rocket side of the company.

"We're very pleased with SpaceX when it comes to launches. We're building our network quickly, and we're using their efficient rocket systems to do it," says Intelsat's McNally. 

Paul Benecki is The Maritime Executive’s News Editor.

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