A new generation of satellites will enable improved connectivity and expanded bandwidth for ships at sea
(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2014 edition.)
***From Nov-Dec 2014 Edition of The Maritime Executive magazine***
It seems like yesterday that the Inmarsat constellation, the world's first dedicated maritime communications satellite system, was launched into space. Satellite communications at the time consisted of a static-filled telephone on the ship's bridge used sparingly by the captain for emergencies – and used less sparingly by the cadet who foolishly ran up outrageous $10/minute phone bills calling his significant other. In those days, the ship's radio operator brought in the week's dot-matrix-printed telex headlines to Sunday lunch. How things have changed!
Like other technologies, maritime satcom has evolved greatly in terms of accessibility, speed and reliability while costs have declined. Today the industry is on the verge of another evolutionary advance. The cellular revolution has turned the telephone into a portable, multi-purpose device complete with high-speed Internet and a vast array of entertainment options. Maritime satcom is moving down the same path, toward wireless connectivity, albeit at a slower pace.
Why slower? Well, if you think that installing a cellular network on earth is expensive, try installing one in outer space. The economics of a terrestrial network are vastly different from those of a space-based system with a multibillion dollar infrastructure serving a relatively small customer base.
From Dial-Up to Wireless
With some exceptions, the core of the world's maritime satellite systems are currently operating at speeds that are more familiar to the users of now-ancient dial-up modems. Ask almost any maritime satellite provider what the primary demand from customers is today and the first word you will hear is “bandwidth.”
In order to meet the growing demand for data at sea, several of the largest satellite providers are launching new high-throughput satellite (HTS) constellations into orbit. In June, the first of three Inmarsat-5 geostationary satellites was launched to inaugurate Inmarsat’s Global Xpress system. Iridium, with its pole-to-pole coverage, lower-orbit satellites, will begin launching the first of 66 Iridium NEXT satellites next year.
Intelsat is entering the HTS business with its Intelsat EpicNG 10-satellite constellation. The scheduled launch of the first EpicNG bird next year will provide services over the Americas and North Atlantic. The second will launch in 2016 for Africa, Asia and Europe. The new system will provide throughput at approximately 10 times the rate of traditional satellites and operate over bands that allow it to seamlessly integrate with existing Intelsat satellites and the IntelsatOne terrestrial communications system.
The satellites will focus most of their coverage over the world's busiest shipping lanes to maximize services to the highest number of customers. According to Intelsat’s James Collett, Director of Mobility Services Product Management, the EpicNG system features an "open architecture design" that is specifically constructed to work with existing Intelsat hardware so that customers can continue to build on their existing infrastructure.
Cobham, a satellite communications partner, is making the transition to the new high-speed services as cost-effective as possible for existing customers. Cobham is currently selling EpicNG-capable VSATs (very-small aperture terminals) as well as, according to Jan Kragh Michelsen, Vice President of Maritime, "field upgrade kits for existing antennas so they may be converted to work on the new HTS services."
Intellian, another Intelsat partner, recently conducted successful tests of its new VSAT Global Xpress terminals on board the Hyundai Bangkok in the South China Sea.
As satcom providers launch larger "pipes" into space through which to pump ever greater amounts of data, the demand for services continues to grow. "Although there are numerous ways to characterize satellite communications requirements for the maritime industry," says Frank August, Director of Satcom Studios and a consultant on satcom product marketing, "the two main purposes across all market sectors are connectivity and entertainment." August classifies connectivity as the business end of satcom – fleet management, company email, vessel tracking, and more. Entertainment is data for the crew while off watch – email, movies, news, social media and Internet.
Satcom for Business
Captain Jeremy Schierer, Master of the YWAM medical ship M/V Pacific Link, states, "In a world where everybody has a smartphone, it is hard to keep up with people’s expectations for connectivity. Trying to use business solutions while at sea can be quite an exercise in frustration."
MidSouth Technologies’ Director of Communications, Scott Breaux, states that
"Marine vessels are being considered as a remote mobile office on the high seas" and "more and more satcom services are becoming necessary to conduct everyday business on a sophisticated, floating high-rise mobile office."
To meet the demands of the modern fleet, MidSouth, a full-service provider, offers integrated communications and security platforms to its customers including proprietary automatic identification systems (AIS) and software, satellite television, and voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) packages.
Satcom providers are already seeing a demand for continuous vessel monitoring. In the past, a daily position report to the company was sufficient for vessel management purposes as communications options were limited. "As the 'noon report' is replaced by a continuous stream of data," says Globecomm Maritime President Malcolm McMaster, "we will begin to properly enter the era of the 'connected ship.'"
Along those lines, Airbus Defense and Space's AuroraGlobal service provides universal remote access to computers onboard a ship at sea. This access meets customer demands for remote troubleshooting through Airbus' multiband HTS services.
Keeping an eye on your vessel while underway is something that ORBCOMM’s
AIS-based solutions are designed to provide. The benefits inherent in such vessel monitoring go beyond the bottom line and include increases in safety and security, gained through knowledge of a vessel's current position and status, that are virtually priceless.
In Canada, Joubeh (pronounced “Ju-Bay”) Technologies responded to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ requirement for vessel tracking by offering a cost-effective Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) known as iTrac II. The system not only keeps crabbers and fishing vessels in compliance with regulations but also allows offshore vessel-tracking information to be accessed by operations personnel and others ashore. An Iridium Value Added Reseller, Joubeh also provides full satcom hardware, proprietary software, data services and more to thousands of customers.
KVH has expanded its satcom services to encompass data demands that were formerly only achievable when the vessel was in port. Its multifaceted IP-MobileCast system operates separately from the vessel's main data service plan and provides downloads and updates for ship's systems. Robert Hopkins, Jr., Director of IP-MobileCast Services, says, "For many maritime operators, there’s an urgent priority to move applications data to the fleet. With IP-MobileCast, we can deliver far more detailed and timely content than was previously thinkable. So we have established partnerships with leading maritime applications providers including Jeppesen, Applied Weather Technology and Transas to provide critical data such as electronic chart updates and high-resolution weather data."
As a result, the ship's navigation officer no longer has to update the ECDIS with a disc or jump-drive delivered through the mail. The updates happen automatically, wirelessly, seamlessly.
Satcom for Entertainment
Serving on ships at sea used to be an exercise in isolation from family, friends and even the current events and news of the world. As we have all become accustomed to being constantly "connected" while ashore through smartphones, satellite providers and shipping companies alike are feeling the heat to satisfy seafarers’ desires to remain connected at sea.
To that end, KVH's IP-MobileCast not only updates a ship's ECDIS, it has a full-featured entertainment offering as well. KVH Chief Executive Officer Martin Kits van Heyningen sums up the entertainment side of the data plan: “The IP-MobileCast service is revolutionary in the richness of fresh content that can be delivered to mariners at sea, who up until now have not had access to updated news, sports, television or movies onboard their vessels. Now, mariners in the middle of the ocean can experience an incredible amount of news and entertainment content the entire time they are at sea, and maritime operators can benefit from providing crew welfare services reliably and affordably.” The reaction to the new system among mariners has been, understandably, “fantastic.”
Another benefit of the IP-MobileCast system is onboard training. KVH recently acquired Videotel, one of the industry’s primary developers of training products, with the clear goal of beaming a huge assortment of training programs via satellite to ships. Now, with an IP-MobileCast system, seafarers can receive certified, on-demand training while underway.
Michael Rugarber, a marine engineer with MEBA, says, "Connectivity has definitely improved over the years, but during peak times the number of crew sharing the bandwidth slows the service down." His most recent ship had Internet, but the data-stream was incapable of supporting video conferencing or intricate website downloads.
The new HTS constellations should alleviate some of that frustration. Meanwhile, providers like Joubeh are offering connectivity options that allow crewmembers to access satellite Internet from their own mobile devices. Marketing Manager Mary Jane Leslie says that the Iridium GO! hotspot is "the hottest product we have ever had." Not just relegated to use at sea, the highly portable, rugged satellite hotspot allows up to five smartphones, tablets or computers with Wi-Fi capabilities to connect to the satellite signal for Internet, email, voice comms, etc. The size and versatility of the Iridium GO! make it ideal for maritime applications on vessels of all sizes.
Over the years, maritime satcom has shifted from an extremely expensive investment that was often considered a luxury to a cost-saving, highly flexible tool for mariners and shipping companies. Domed VSAT antennae now dot the superstructures of not only naval vessels and large merchant ships but even relatively small yachts.
The demand for services and bandwidth is constantly growing, and maritime satcom, with the arrival of new providers and new satellite constellations, has very big things on the horizon for offshore customers. We’ve certainly come a long way from the occasional ultra-expensive satellite telephone call from the bridge! – MarEx
Todd Vorenkamp is a frequent contributor to the magazine.
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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.
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