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High Speed Internet at Sea

Low-Earth-orbit satellites are revolutionizing maritime connectivity – to the delight of shipowners and crew alike.

Satellite terminal on a ship in a cold icy environment
iStock

Published Jan 7, 2024 4:09 PM by Mia Bennett

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2023 edition.)

 

Far above the planet, thousands of satellites are orbiting Earth.

Some are taking high-resolution photographs and beaming them back to ground stations, allowing companies like San Francisco-based Planet Labs to count how many ships are in a port. The spate of viral satellite images of Evergreen Marine’s Ever Given, grounded in the Suez Canal in March 2021, cemented the importance of satellites for tracking and documenting the global shipping fleet.

Other satellites provide television and phone service and, increasingly, Internet access to remote corners of the planet. More and more, these spaceborne sentinels are linking up with the maritime sector.

Smaller and Cheaper

In the early days of the satellite era, which commenced in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, enormous parabolic antennas were necessary for communicating with instruments in space.

Most antennas were located within purpose-built satellite ground stations. One antenna, however, was onboard the USNS Kingsport. In 1963, its 53-foot radome enabled the first two-way call between two heads of state by satellite, connecting U.S. President John F. Kennedy to Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa, who visited Kingsport while it was docked in Lagos.

Now, such giant shipborne radomes are a thing of the past. As technologies across the various stages of the satellite data chain become smaller and cheaper, seaborne vessels ranging from pleasure yachts to super-large container ships can leverage satellite services – and data – more broadly.

Inmarsat, the British satellite telecommunications company established in 1979 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to create a satellite communications network for the maritime sector, reported a 56 percent increase in data usage by commercial maritime vessels between 2021 and 2022. Inmarsat predicts the global shipping fleet’s uptake of data will help it function more effectively, efficiently and securely, enhancing compliance with U.S., E.U. and IMO regulations and supporting the transition to a greener maritime future.

“Paradigm Shift”

Out at sea, a significant amount of this data will be transmitted by satellites – specifically, those in low Earth orbit (LEO), where U.S.-based SpaceX operates its Starlink satellite constellation.

From 550 kilometers (340 miles) above the planet, Starlink satellites provide high-speed, low-latency broadband Internet to users below including, crucially, across most of the world’s oceans. This has helped to radically boost connectivity speeds. Previously, satellite Internet at sea was provided by medium-Earth-orbit and geostationary satellites up to 35,000 kilometers (21,700 miles) above the planet. Greater distances from Earth meant much slower Internet connection speeds, limiting the service’s utility.

Creighton Litt, CEO and owner of U.S.-based Creighton Marine Services (CMS), a maritime information technologies services company, explains, “There needs to be a generalized understanding that a paradigm shift has occurred in the maritime industry.” He contends that, for forty years, “As long as there have been computers on ships through antennas, they’ve been limited by what they can do.” Now, however, “We have all the same capabilities as the terrestrial world, thanks to Starlink.”

First of its Kind

CMS began installing Starlink on ships in 2022. Litt, who already had Starlink at his house, was asked by Maersk Line if his company could put it on a ship, and the first installation occurred in May of 2022. That first ship ended up becoming a test platform for Starlink, whose engineers set sail with CMS for a week while they performed operational and functional tests.

“We were the very first commercial ship in the maritime world to have Starlink on board,” says Litt. “It was through that relationship that we were asked to install it on another ship, and then another ship.” In the end, CMS carried out Starlink installations across Maersk Line’s entire fleet.

By using Starlink, CMS is able to maintain an uptime in excess of 98 percent, outdoing other maritime Internet service providers. According to Litt, Starlink costs approximately one-third of traditional Internet providers in geostationary orbit while offering 1,800 times the bandwidth.

“By bringing it onboard ships,” he exclaims, “we were not only able to increase bandwidth, but crews were starting to enjoy manning.” He notes that retention has increased to 85 percent or more, offering tremendous cost savings while allowing crewing coordinators to be selective and matriculate their seamen.

Compared to geostationary Internet, LEO Internet also enables a giant increase in operational readiness and real-time systems-monitoring.

“We just finished a really fantastic project where we were able to get an entire fleet of ships on the cloud,” Litt explains, “which absolutely changed their structure and organization and their IT dependencies. Now, all of a sudden, they’re able to have IT be in the cloud.” Cloud-computing platforms like Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, once only available for terrestrial businesses, can now be used by the maritime industry.

Once a maritime company decides to shift to LEO internet, whether from Starlink or other providers down the line, a tremendous number of real-time monitoring services becomes available including oil analysis, fuel analysis, vibration analysis and infrared analysis.

Another service is bearing analysis. Litt says that by placing a piece of equipment that costs $375 on a bearing, continuous monitoring can be provided, allowing accurate prediction of failures six months out: “This is where we see the future of satellite telecoms. It’s not just going to be what it’s been for the last 40 years – for payroll or correspondence. It’s going to allow shipping companies to allow or enhance their critical maintenance and overall costs in a whole new way they’re only now starting to discover.”

Making Waves

Another U.S.-based company making waves in maritime mobile connectivity is KVH Industries.

Chris Watson, Vice President of Marketing, likened commercial vessels to “digital nodes on corporate networks,” generating upwards of 20 gigabytes daily of performance data. Until recently, a lack of connectivity prohibited data from getting off the vessel until a ship docked. This severely limited the capabilities and benefits of predictive maintenance and real-time performance adjustments.

To overcome this problem and connect ships to the Internet of Things (IoT), KVH delivers reliable, fast, and affordable data communications in harbors, along the coasts and at sea. “By ensuring that vessels are always connected,” Watson says, “we ensure that IoT data can be transmitted from the vessel to the cloud and experts on shore where it can then support real-time responses through services such as live video chats and augmented reality for maintenance, voyage optimization, cargo management and more.”

Echoing CMS’ view that better Internet connectivity ensures a happier crew with higher retention, Watson states, “Connection with home is the number-one welfare concern of seafarers and makes a huge difference to crew when choosing a company to work for.” Being able to access news, sports and entertainment and interact with loved ones back home boosts the mental health of crews at sea.

KVH’s wide range of options and flexible packages enable affordable crew calls, email and Internet access, meeting the various budgets of operators, owners and crew. KVH Link, for instance, delivers hundreds of news stories, movies, TV shows, music and karaoke, social videos, sporting events and stats, and documentaries without impacting vessel communications. For vessels that might not have a KVH hybrid or VSAT terminal, the KVH linkHUB solution provides blockbuster movies and TV programs to vessels each month via secure drives and an onboard media server.

Watson says KVH is well-positioned to maintain its mobile connectivity leadership role as the company continues its ongoing strategic evolution: “This evolution includes a terminal-agnostic approach that permits us to integrate our VSAT and cellular terminals with new and emerging hardware from Starlink and other manufacturers.”

KVH has strengthened its position as a “multi-orbit, multi-channel, integrated solutions provider” following the company’s agreement to be a Starlink reseller. KVH offers Starlink both as a standalone solution and as a hybrid companion to its TracNet, TracPhone and OpenNet terminals. The company is activating Starlink through its airtime group, “providing 24/7 live technical support, and working with leisure boaters, commercial customers and boat builders to deploy the Starlink service as part of a comprehensive KVH solution.”

Connectivity Congestion

For all the talk of Internet at sea, U.K.-based Inmarsat Maritime recognizes that the average vessel spends 40 percent of its time near land, where connections are not always reliable due to congestion.

In June 2023, the company launched Fleet Reach, which addresses the issue of connectivity congestion along coastlines and in port.

“Fleet Reach draws on terrestrial mobile networks to offer supercharged connectivity in coastal areas and ports,” a spokesperson explains, “allowing seafarers to enjoy a consistent connection wherever the vessel is, with the service seamlessly switching between technologies to ensure an always-on connection. Together, these components work in harmony, offering seamless connectivity for the maritime sector and ensuring shipowners and operators that reliability, service commitment, customer experience and other needs can be met, now and into the future.”

Inmarsat is also committed to delivering cyber-resilient digital services and mission-critical connectivity to its customers. Its encrypted network uses military-grade satellites while its Fleet Secure cybersecurity solution comprises three components – Endpoint, Unified Threat Management and Cyber Awareness Training – to provide a comprehensive response to the ever-increasing threat of maritime cyberattacks.

Social Ills?

The widespread availability of broadband Internet across the Earth’s landmass has revolutionized day-to-day life. Once heralded with excitement, however, the social ills of constant connectivity are now coming to light.

For the 71 percent of the planet covered by oceans, the high-speed Internet age is just beginning. With the rapid increase in LEO Internet thanks to providers like Starlink, the world’s fleet will be increasingly connected. Initially, this may be a boon to operators and crews alike. Yet in time, the same debates triggered by round-the-clock connectivity onshore may spread to sea.

Will crews be distracted? Or spend too much time on social media? And what will be the environmental footprint of cloud computing and infinite scrolling aboard ships? Now that the high-speed genie is out of the bottle, only time will tell.

Dr. Mia Bennett is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Washington.

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