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Coming of Age

Satellite connectivity is no longer an expensive luxury. It’s an affordable necessity.

iridium next
Iridium's NEXT satellite constellation upgrade (Iridium)

By John Minetola 02-16-2021 09:55:00

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2020 edition.)

Satcoms today are all grown up and mature, occupying a central place in the maritime landscape. Usage and speed are up. Cost is down, and there are plenty of new developments to share.

Let’s start with breaking news about GMDSS, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Mandated for ships internationally by SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea Convention), the new distress-call part of satellite services has crossed over from regulatory review and predictions to being an actual mature service for the entire world.

It begins this month with the rollout of Iridium's GMDSS service, marking a decade in the process of IMO approval of modernization of distress calls and providing essential coverage in dangerous and remote polar regions. The existing Inmarsat-C sends a short distress text, but with Iridium a voice call is placed at the same time so that a better description of the problem can be given to the call center operator. Then an alert goes out to nearby vessels with GMDSS.

Amazingly, the price for this new equipment is lower. The Lars Thrane GMDSS unit is about $5,000 and has no moving antenna. In addition, you can make non-distress voice calls easily. According to Iridium’s Wouter Deknopper, Vice President & General Manager of Maritime, Iridium Certus – which already has higher data speeds – will incorporate a GMDSS button in the near future.

After competitor Inmarsat launches some backup I6 satellites, its Fleet Broadband upgrade kit will also be approved as GMDSS, again with a low investment. Alerts will be sent to nearby ships by both text and voice.

Crew Welfare During Covid-19

With thousands of crew members stranded at sea for months at a time, service providers reported a sharp uptick in crew members calling and messaging home. AST’s INTEGRA uses analytics to track this data trend in detail and allows vessel managers to track and control it too. Use of WhatsApp went up, and regionally LINE and Telegram nearly doubled. VOIP apps were used for more voice calls.

Satcom providers saw the pattern quickly and responded with compassion, stepping up to help by donating services and free airtime. The charitable connectivity paid off handsomely as it took many months for vessel owners and staffing organizations to come up with plans like chartering planes and transient quarantine houses to enable the rotation of ship’s staff.

Iridium chipped in with hundreds of thousands dollars in free data. KVH offered half-off prices along with data plan upgrades and has extended the discounts through 2021. Marlink’s “StrongerTogether” initiative, Inmarsat’s telemedicine and work with ISWAN and other programs offered help to crew members right away.

Commented Mark Woodhead, Executive Vice President of Mobile Connectivity at KVH: “KVH empathizes with crew who can’t rotate off vessels in foreign ports and provides more inexpensive content than any other satcom provider.”

Long before the coronavirus, KVH was approaching crew welfare by way of content. Video is downloaded in the background for multiple views with no on-demand cost. YourLink consists of corporate-created videos. NewsLink, SportsLink, MovieLink and TVLink have what their names imply, and seafarers can view the videos on their own devices.

Managing Crew Calls

Going forward, all vessel managers realize that Internet access for all crew should be just as standard as having running water or electricity in a house. A Futurenautics report says 58 percent of crew members bring laptops on board, more bring smartphones, and 88 percent use wireless communications regularly.

Cobham SATCOM’s Stephan Romer Jorgenson, Maritime Director for Asia & Oceania, sums up how the impact of COVID-19 is triggering a “minimum acceptability” for satellite communications at sea for seafarer well-being: “There’s a need for new finance models to provide hard-pressed ship operators with the flexibility required to provide seafarers with reliable connectivity. Access is now viewed by seafarers as being as important as basic sustenance. This shift has forced the satcom industry to revisit the price models it offers.” 

If you’re managing lower-budget vessels, you can still let the crew reach out to home over satellite links. All providers have ways for crew to purchase reloadable scratch cards or to route the crew calls through a managed portion of your satcom budget. With a bigger budget, you can still restrict sites and the types of apps available to the crew.

Digitizing Operations

Digitalization will be the next wave in satcom usage.

In shipping offices, vessels and connected ports, digitalization is a movement away from paper and multiple copies physically moving around. Digital forms of the same information can be handled and adjusted more easily and without human contact or contamination.

Marlink’s Maritime President, Tore Morten Olsen, concurs: “It’s true that maritime has traditionally been conservative in terms of technology adoption and fragmented in its approach to innovation. Rather than quickly embracing new models and ways of working, it tends to stick with homegrown hardware and software solutions rather than platforms. But the speed and depth of digitalization means that has changed for good.”

Marlink statistics show that maritime companies are only halfway to digitizing compared to land-based businesses – 30 percent of maritime versus 60 percent for land-based businesses. However, the change is accelerating on both fronts.

Nabil Ben Soussia, CEO for Asia/ME & CIS of IEC Telecom, says enhanced services and digitalization are the future offerings of service providers. For instance, he points out that back in 2012 Thuraya’s unlimited data plans obviated the need for helicopter flights with crew rotations to carry CDs with data. In the Gulf of Mexico, oil platforms and research vessels have only more recently gotten away from carrying DVDs along with crew rotation.

This digitalization process parallels the IoT (Internet of Things) that we have all heard is the future of 5G. Although it’s only on two percent of ships now, the wireless connection is complete. We’re ready for these inexpensive “bits” of data flowing through connections like Inmarsat’s Fleet Data.

We can now look forward to performance-monitoring sensors that remotely measure engine performance and such all the way up to exotic new sensors that can watch for cruise passengers maintaining social distancing, according to Greg Martin, Vice President of Maritime at SES in Florida.

New Constellations

Perhaps the most talked-about new satellite system is Elon Musk’s Starlink. Hundreds of satellites are whizzing across the sky to bring Internet to vehicles or remote locations on farms and Third World areas. As designed, it doesn’t offer a backhaul from the middle of the ocean, and there are no plans to make marine antennas that I can find. Amazon’s Kuiper and OneWeb also have their own impediments to moving onto ships.

“A large marine migration from high-orbit GEO (geostationary) satellites to LEO (low-earth orbit) is not a strong possibility,” says Jens Ewerling, Maritime Director of Broadband at Cobham SATCOM. On the other hand, he sees possibly good results with Kepler and a distant future for Telesat and Viasat-3.

Early flat-panel marine antennas with no moving parts from Kymeta and Phasor showed a lot of promise but have not panned out for marine use. They may work on airplanes although the replacement cycle in planes is far away now.

On a positive note, Iridium is a LEO that has proven itself and is now in its second generation. Intellian just released a solid state antenna with a phased array for Iridium Certus. Intellian is now in L-band as well as the other bands. It started with moving antenna dishes and is now a mature manufacturer.

Stabilized dishes remain the best path to high bandwidth for a ship. Cobham and Intellian report robust sales of Inmarsat Global Xpress antennas. Stabilized antennas used across VSAT platforms still have the bulk of the high-speed business, especially for standardization and freedom to switch platforms.   

SES has been one of the biggest satellite owners in the world for a long time and has acquired O3b, a multi-level constellation. As SES launched more birds in this system, it changed the name to mPower. It’s excellent for high throughput, but large antennas are required. Cruise ships have room for lots of antennas, of course, and Carnival is looking forward to mPower.

How to Buy

It’s good for the maritime world that satcoms are relatively mature. Even as most household technologies change quickly, marine products tend to move forward in a steady and easily foreseeable way. The current marine satcom systems are proven, and you can be confident in them. You no longer need a live demonstration to see if a sat phone works or if it makes your voice sound funny.

Leasing remains the way to finance in these days of low rates. If your vessel is small and on a tight budget, maybe L-band with no moving parts in the antenna will be fine. Bear in mind that you may need more bandwidth before your system ends its useful life. You can add a VSAT later and keep the smaller unit as a backup.

For higher connectivity budgets, the larger service providers are grown up and ready for consultation today. 

John Minetola is a veteran of the marine electronics and satcom businesses. This is his first appearance in the magazine.  

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