Marlink’s VSAT solution for a Dubai-based shipping company tests, in extreme conditions, the accuracy of the antenna, the on-board technology, the coverage solutions and teleport support, says Magne Remoy, director, Middle East, Africa and India for Marlink.
The newbuild, high-performance vessels of a pioneering Dubai-based marine geophysical company, offered Magne Remoy’s team at Marlink, a global provider of Satcom solutions, the opportunity to deploy some of their most sophisticated mobile satellite-based solutions.
The contract was signed more than three years ago for the delivery and installation of Marlink’s Sealink C-band VSAT services on board eight vessels being built at that time in Dubai Drydocks World. The ships have been built to provide highly specialised marine services worldwide to the oil and gas industry.
“As early as 1976, we established the Eik teleport in Norway, designed to provide communications to the North Sea platforms. We are familiar with the challenges of providing coverage in the polar regions. In addition to the teleport in Norway, we have two teleports on either side of the USA that enable us to offer global coverage, critical for the marine industry,” says Remoy, the Dubai-based director, Middle East, Africa and India for Marlink.
The client needed a service which had full resilience coupled with the ability to operate out of normal trading routes as survey, subsea and research operations do not generally follow conventional maritime routes. These operations include routes into the polar region where Ku-band is insufficient and a large antenna is therefore required to stabilise the satellite link.
Evolution of the solutions
The Sealink VSAT solution was selected for its high quality broadband connectivity and stability ensuring a reliable service, as per Remoy. Offering historical perspective, Remoy explains, “Sealink is a product of Telenor’s satellite division, a satellite provider of broadcast and data services with which Marlink has recently renewed and increased its capacity for the next three years. We were one of the first to put the stabilised VSAT on board a ship. Initially when we worked on rigs, the VSAT antenna systems were huge. It was fixed and so had to be manually adjusted every day. In the 1990’s, with the stabilised VSAT that points within 0.2 degrees of the satellite, which is considered very accurate, the quality of communication on-board vessels improved vastly.
“Similarly in the area of multiplexers, there was great progress made in the 1990’s the allowed for the dynamic allocation of bandwidth. This ensured that when the phone lines were not used, the data can be used. This was fabulous for the oil and gas sector that had, at that time, only one external phone line. “While the oil industry grew as a result of more efficient communications, the ferry industry also saw this as a viable revenue model that allowed for verification of credit cards enabling on-board transactions, among other services.
“By the year 2000, we had more than 100 vessels, and by 2004, we had about 650 vessels with the Sealink system installed. The special aspect about Sealink is that it is supported by our own infrastructure, by way of teleports. And with three teleports, global coverage using the C-band was easy for us to implement.”
The Satcom solutions deployed
As per Remoy, the solutions were customised to meet the technologically advanced requirements of the client’s fleet in terms of accuracy. “The Sealink VSAT system includes dual C-band antennas with automatic switchover, dedicated full-duplex bandwidth through a Single Channel Per Carrier (SCPC) satellite link. The dual system also includes several LAN networks on-board, eight simultaneous voice lines and access to Marlink’s prepaid platform.”
Elaborating on the system, Remoy says, “Our solution is based on the C-band because it is ideal for global coverage and not susceptible to rain-fade. On-board we have a combination of Cisco routers and multiplexers. We have the Cisco system to ensure ease of maintenance. If vessels have a brief stop on land and need maintenance, a Cisco engineer is available. We provide internal telephony, public telephony, GSM carrier services and administrative vessel-to-shore LAN services, as well as email and internet services, to enable reliable, always-on connection with shore operations.
“In addition, the client may have dedicated lines to their own clients. The open internet we provide the crew has a filtering system. The client has opted for an SCPC connection and they have installed their own software on board the ship to monitor usage of bandwidth. We, on our part, have done the same in the teleport.
“The client initially started with a requirement for 128 kbit/s per vessel. Today they have gone up to 512 kbit/s. And from time to time, we are instructed to provide one megabit for a month or so for a special project. Basically the solution we have provided is scalable and flexible.
“While the phone lines have priority, based on the client needs, we have also prioritised data, crew connections and the interface they have with their clients.”
Meeting operational challenges
With the client’s fleet operating for periods of time in the polar region, providing satellite communications can be particularly challenging. Remoy’s team provided the fleet with a low-orbit satellite system, Iridium OpenPort, which allowed for continued communications albeit on a lower bandwidth.
Need for redundancy within congested areas
With the client operating on occasion within a congested area, for example, within the vicinity of an oil rig, Marlink needed to guarantee the bandwidth. “We provided the client with a dedicated SCPC line with backup. The alternative services offered by many other providers would have meant using a shared bandwidth and this would have adversely affected their operations,” explains Remoy.
Meeting critical contractual obligations
“We have provided the client with a dual system for a couple of reasons,” explains Remoy. “In the polar areas, you get elevation which is much lower and there are a number of obstructions for the signal including parts of the vessel, funnels, bridges, antennas and so on. The antenna provided at the back of the vessel is offered as a backup in such cases. This is also helpful when navigating through ice-bergs.”
Secondly there are contractual obligations that call for complete up-time, says Remoy. He explains, “There are complex undersea operations that require the vessel to be completely still and the positioning of instruments is based on a constant stream of communication that involves an advanced network on board that controls the engines with several reference points for positioning the vessel – and all this is satellite-based. In case of drift or any small error, the operations come to a complete standstill that could potentially result in huge losses for the client.”
The Satcom solutions have also helped the client fulfill its environmental vision, which according to Remoy, is one of their “founding pillars”. “Should any technical difficulties arise,” says Remoy, “having the facility for remote diagnosis via internet through satellite reduces the need for costly call-outs and transportation from on-shore, including the related high fuel usage.”
Importance of crew welfare and retention
The new generation of internet-savvy seafarers expect connectivity wherever they are in order to communicate with the outside world. “Retaining the high-skilled crew is crucial to our client and they provide high quality internet access through VSAT,” says Remoy who also believes that in this part of the world, shipping companies have yet to fully appreciate the importance of connectivity towards retaining crew. It can be a revenue model, says Remoy.
“With our pre-paid cards, companies can actually cover all the expenses on communication. It is a win-win situation for both the crew and the ship owners.” A spokesman for the client stated: “Internet access for social media as well as online services such as personal banking, is perhaps becoming even more important than television. Obviously, during critical operations, priority is given to office online requirements and crew internet capacity is reduced but only temporarily. From an IT perspective, we are able to operate in essentially the same way as an onshore office – that’s the whole point really of paying for a quality service like VSAT.”