Nabil Ben Soussia of IEC Telecom Middle East on trends in maritime satcom industry

The analyst says revenue for maritime service providers is estimated to exceed 2,5 billion dollars by 2025. Among the general trends, we will see the emergence of the smart ship concept and autonomous ship concept as well.
Nabil Ben Soussia, MD, IEC Telecom Middle East

Every day, more than 50,000 merchant ships cross the oceans with millions of cargo containers in tow, signalling the need for fast and efficient communications aboard vessels, and between land and sea. SatellitePro ME spoke to Nabil Ben Soussia, MD, IEC Telecom Middle East to understand key trends and challenges in the segment, and how they are being addressed.

Can you tell us about some of the trends within the maritime satcoms market and what perhaps makes this vertical different from the others?

Satellite communications in the maritime sector is a hot topic now. The revenue for maritime service providers is estimated to exceed 2,5 billion dollars by 2025. Among the general trends, we will see the emergence of the smart ship concept and autonomous ship concept as well. Connectivity will be a driving factor for improved operations, efficiency as well as bring more attention to topics such as safety and cybersecurity.

Some of the key trends within the maritime satcoms sector that I would like to highlight include VSAT technology’s dominance in the satcom market. As global trade increases, marine activities pick up pace and shipping routes become more crowded. Daily, more than 50,000 merchant ships alone cross the oceans with millions of cargo containers in tow, signalling the need for fast and efficient communications aboard vessels and between land and sea. According to the NSR Maritime SATCOM Markets, 5th Edition, more than 14,000 vessels are currently connected using a broadband VSAT connection, and this number is projected to rise to more than 37,000 vessels by 2026. In other words, we expect significant continued growth ahead. The underlying reasons for this growth are crew welfare, seafarers and passengers using their own devices on ships, and the insatiable appetite for operational data processing and analysis. The transition to VSAT technology will enable high-capacity broadband which will, in turn, satisfy rising communication needs from both operational applications and crew communication needs.

With vessel owners/operators looking to leverage investment to maximise operational efficiency and ROI, VSAT wins over MSS in every way. The biggest reason is the financial predictability of flat monthly rates offered by VSAT as opposed to the traditional pay per use of MSS communication. Unlike MSS, VSAT services can enable modern applications on board bringing maritime connectivity on par with land solutions. This includes video conferencing, remote maintenance, telemedicine, IoT and more. Satcom technologies turn vessels into fully operational remote business units.

Cyber threats, transfer of big data, live communication… All those terms have become an integral part of any business, and the maritime industry is no different. VSAT set up on it own is capable to receive and distribute bandwidth. The rest comes with a package of value-added services connected to your VSAT terminal. The most common requirements fulfilled by value-added services are optimization, filtration,  email compression services and cybersecurity.

We hear all the time about crew welfare and family connectivity being important and we understand this is being addressed significantly but are there other areas that also require attention and how is this being catered to?

Today, connectivity is about more than just social media and web surfing. While the ability to connect is becoming a default setting and a prerequisite to functioning in daily life, it’s equally important to remember that connectivity is directly responsible for business efficiency and productivity. With over 90% of worldwide trade served by the maritime market, vessels at sea rely on broadband connectivity and VSAT technology to stay in touch with operations on land to receive revised instructions, weather forecasts and navigation map updates and much more in time for prompt decision making. Satcom enhances productivity by allowing new technologies on board. Such technologies as remote maintenance, digital medicine, e-training fully rely on disrupted connectivity.

While the shift towards increasing interconnectedness at sea is continuing to enable significant efficiency gains and new capabilities for maritime operations, it has also brought about an increase in vulnerability to cyber threats within the maritime industry. Just during the last few years, successful cyber-attacks cost the maritime industry hundreds of millions of dollars. Therefore, implementing stronger cybersecurity standards is essential to manage risk and potential loss.

Which specific solutions do you bring to the market for maritime customers? And do the challenges differ from one sea to another because of the geographies? Is switching between satellite and cellular not a common challenge in all seas?

For 20 years now, IEC Telecom Group has been supplying high-quality satellite-based technology providing clients with end-to-end voice and data services, when and where, it matters most. We are one of the leading global providers of managed network communication solutions. We offer a comprehensive suite of system integration, system products, and network services enabling a complete end-to-end solution for our customers that includes cyber security. We believe that our integrated approach of in-house design and engineering expertise provides us with a unique competitive advantage. Our solutions are deployed in selective vertical markets, including government, humanitarian, wireless, media, energy, enterprise, and maritime.

When it comes to the maritime sector, companies today acknowledge that onboard connectivity is linked directly to seafarer welfare as well as business productivity. As such, the challenge is to balance the two well while maintaining budgetary control at all times. Our solutions like OneGate Maritime are designed to meet all of these requirements. The OneGate Maritime is a platform developed by IEC Telecom that meets the dual requirements of onboard connectivity for crew welfare as well as for corporate use. It provides 360 support for corporate communication, helping businesses manage bandwidth, monitor usage consumption, control budget and retrieve 24/7 satellite support. At the same time, the OneGate Maritime improves the crew wellbeing on board by providing access to a high-quality voice and data connection including VoIP, web browsing, VOD and emails. It allows tight control over budgets while managing crew allocations. It also includes the ability to hold remote crew training, arrange special assistance via telemedicine and more.

Challenges do vary, but this is company to company and not on account of the sea. Some challenges which exist include issues related to the level of technicity and digitalization of every country and every company operating in that country. As an example, you will find European companies more ready to go digital as compared to some Asian companies where digitalization is not implemented even in their offices.

Vessel operators are always looking for new ways to optimize their activities and especially reduce energy consumption and crew size. New smart vessel applications today focus on increasing fleet efficiency by preventing unpredicted downtime, optimizing energy consumption and reducing maintenance cost.

System efficiency is another challenge, which can be tackled using value-added service packages and supporting software solutions.

Will IEC Telecom have a presence at ConnectechAsia Singapore and if yes, what will you hope to highlight in this market?

We won’t attend Connectech Asia, however, we will definitely attend  other exhibitions that provide networking opportunities with users of satellite services, for example, we took part in Sea Asia 2019, premier maritime conference and exhibition in Asia-Pacific, and we are looking forward to exhibiting there again in 2021.

Do your solutions address the 5G and IoT challenges within the satellite industry and what is your contribution within this sector?

5G is a technology that targets high-density population areas. Our solutions will be compliant with this technology, but its usage will be limited to ports.

IoT, however, has a big role to play. As the maritime industry is heading towards a digitalized, data-driven world, IoT will help businesses in several ways such as improving cargo handling and preemptive maintenance, collect data, reduce the administrative costs of regulatory compliance, improve safety, monitor and optimize fuel consumption and more.

IEC Telecom’s solutions enable IoT on board and thus permit shipowners to better manage their fleet, stay informed of the status of each component of the ship and container remotely and get real-time updates for off-shore operations.

How has the demand for technology in the maritime satcoms market changed or evolved over the years and how are solution providers such as yourself addressing this demand?

The maritime industry is quite conservative when it comes to introducing new technologies, however, rapid advances in recent years have changed the face of maritime communications and will continue to do so.

With the crisis, companies had to be creative in cutting cost and with the technology available already in other industries, the implementation is going very fast. So fast that sometimes it doesn’t take into consideration all the aspects of safe implementation.

For us, it is good that the market requesting new solutions but it is also important to educate and advise the customers on correct implementation. In this perspective, we play the role of a technology consultant more than that of a technology provider. Our flexible architecture solution allows us to accommodate all customers need and implement most of the solutions they require.

Are you able to share any statistics within the APAC market or the maritime market to substantiate the reason for how you are catering to this market?

The maritime industry is today on the cusp of a technology revolution and will witness significant transformation over the next decade. VSAT technology could fulfil the significant capacity requirements for crew and passenger communications. Total service revenue for VSAT is expected to exceed 2 billion dolars by 2025. Demand for VSAT has variable requirements in different regions of the world: Asia Pacific customers focus more on price, whereas European customers, for example, are more keen to pay for value-added services. Thus, service providers are moving toward digitalization trying to develop fully integrated smart-ship solutions; we are servicing our customers in this vertical as well.

We are very keen to know more about some of the new technology trends within maritime and if IEC can elaborate on this – whether it be in VSAT, HTS…

As mentioned earlier, VSAT technology is gradually taking the place of MSS in the maritime sector. This will continue happening at a rapid pace.

We will see the rapid adoption of IoT. IoT connectivity is capable of generating huge data insights regarding operations and working environment, as well as a slew of new data-based revenue opportunities. IoT connectivity can also transform day-to-day operations at sea, at port and as part of a wider logistics network. Issues can be pinpointed, downtime can be reduced, and processes can be streamlined, changing the face of the maritime industry as we know it.

We will see artificial intelligence (AI) playing a role in the maritime industry, with computers predicting the future course and movements of a vessel and relaying this information on-shore. With this data, ship masters will be able to improve situational awareness and decision-making and create safer outcomes.

Blockchain is making its presence felt in many sectors including maritime. It enables decentralization and by reducing the cost of transactions, this technology allows all parties involved to save time and money. Going forward, we expect that blockchain technology will play a major role in reshaping the industry’s future by reducing paperwork, connecting parties directly and enabling real-time transactions and transmission of documents through secure channels.

Businesses are coming to acknowledge the vast benefits of big data analytics. In order to manage large fleets of ships, make sense of maritime accident data, carry out preventive maintenance and more, big data analytics is increasingly becoming the tool of choice.

Interest in autonomous ships is growing fast. According to a report by Reportlinker, the autonomous ships market size is expected to grow from USD 6.1 billion in 2018 to USD 13.8 billion by 2030, at a CAGR of 7% during the forecast period. Autonomous ships are completely unmanned and remote-controlled from the shore. While the increasing seaborne trade and the growth in maritime tourism is driving the growth of the autonomous ships market, digitalization also brings with it the threat of cybercrime. Other barriers include tech innovations necessary to make autonomous shipping a success, regulatory clearances as well as a shortage of qualified professionals.