Operators Satellite Tech Features

Communication on the High Seas

Maritime communications are becoming more essential than ever to increase efficiency and crew welfare, along with advanced tracking capabilities

From providing voice communications to fishing crews to enabling reliable Wi-Fi on oil support ships, satellite technology is vital to stay connected offshore, when GSM disappears just a few kilometres from land. Maritime customers are embracing the Internet of Things, and state-of-the-art tracking systems are helping ensure that maritime supply chain participants can reliably track their cargoes and the high-value vessels transporting them.

Gavan Murphy, Director of Marketing, EMEA, Globalstar, says: “Maritime businesses today need to maximise efficiency. Unscheduled downtime in a dockyard means lost revenues. Knowing where your vessels are and their condition, 24/7, enables this. Satellite solutions also help ensure crew safety in the dangerous environments mariners often face.”

“Essentially the same rules apply to all maritime vessels: for reliable connectivity and voice communications, a satellite network is essential. Globalstar is used by military/defence organisations in maritime contexts, as well as among commercial and leisure boat users. Our GSP-1700 satellite phone, marine kit and the SPOT Gen3 GPS satellite messenger are popular in the commercial fishing industry and by private yacht owners alike.”

Jens Ewerling, Director, Maritime Broadband – Cobham SATCOM, thinks most niches have their own needs from satcom. While the military use their own satellites and closed secure networks, in the commercial markets passenger vessels are looking for high bandwidth for many concurrent users, while merchant vessels are looking for the right coverage, reliability and level of investment.

“This is why it is important for us to have a full portfolio of antennas based on SAILOR VSAT technology alongside our Sea Tel customised range – requirements change by vessel type and every user is different, so we need to ensure they can choose a reliable Cobham-built antenna best suited to their needs,” says Ewerling.

Julian Crudge, Director, Datacomms Division, Telenor, says the higher the number of users or the greater the complexity of communications needs, the higher the speed and the more reliable the connection needs to be. In general, commercial vessels with the smallest staff on board, who are occupied on day-to-day tasks running the vessel, have the smallest connections, whereas a cruise ship with upwards of a thousand leisure passengers on board with time to spare will have the greatest need for connectivity.

Roger Harfouch, Regional Director MEA and Turkey, Maritime at Marlink, chimes in to point out how ships are tracked through satellite, and the equipment used for tracking and communications.

“Vessels have on board equipment talking to the satellites about their whereabouts, similar to how mobile phones tell the base station its location or GPS. By connecting the gyro on board to the satellite connection on board, the vessel’s whereabouts can be communicated as often as desired and fed into the customer’s or organisation’s in-house or external mapping systems, GPS and gyro compass for the location data, and satcoms antenna/service for the transfer of said data.

“Ship owners choose between mobile satellite services, which usually have a pay per MB model, or the fixed cost fee model of VSAT. MSS is traditionally smaller antennas and lower bandwidths, and VSAT is slightly larger antennas, higher throughputs and typically a fixed cost per month. Many choose to combine the technologies, utilising VSAT for primary communications and automatically switching to MSS if and when needed. Marlink has developed the XChange communications management system to handle the switching, but as the platform for a myriad of value-added services such as entertainment, telemedicine and remote access, it offers much more,” says Harfouch.

Nabil Ben Soussia, MD, IEC Telecom, says vessels have different needs. The operational need is always the main one, and it depends on the vessel itself and its operations. He says that on some vessels, there are restrictions where some sensitive data has to be secured.

“Another level of service on the same vessel can be the crew welfare that has to be managed differently from one company to another. You can find vessels where the crew has restricted access to welfare (limited by volume or time), others may have no access or unlimited access. It always depends on the policy of the company and number of crew. You might afford unlimited welfare to a crew of five people, but you can’t have it for a crew of 100 people,” says Ben Soussia.

Crudge says a variety of communications solutions can be provided on board a ship, from VHF radio to Inmarsat GMDSS for safety and security solutions, to Inmarsat Fleetbroadband with connectivity to 0.4mbps, to full VSAT systems that can provide tens of mbps globally. In addition, ships can have GSM antennas installed on board to provide data connections when in range of land.

“Military vessels by their nature will require the most secure encrypted communications, compared with a fishing vessel, which will only be using their communications for voice and browsing and so don’t need to have such a high level of security. As well as using commercial satellites, military customers will also use military satellite solutions such as using X-band or military Ka-band, which cannot be used by normal commercial customers, as they do not have access to the receive equipment,” adds Crudge.

Fast Broadband

In general, cruise ships require large bandwidths to deliver service to all their passengers. They generally do this by routing the satellite service to Wi-Fi routers on board so it is easy for passengers to get connectivity. An important aspect of this service is managing or optimising bandwidth effectively so that each user gets a good experience.

Harfouch says: “Cruise vessels require the most capacity of any maritime users to serve all of their passengers. While connectivity is very in demand on board, it can also be used as a revenue stream. Passengers are prepared to pay for a fast, reliable service. Satcom allows cruise passengers to share personal moments on board via social media, which makes connectivity an important channel to market cruise holidays to new people.”

Murphy says Globalstar has a unit called Sat-Fi that enables up to eight passengers or crew to use their smartphone or other Wi-Fi enabled device to send and receive calls, email and SMS text messages. Sat-Fi enables Wi-Fi connectivity up to 100 metres from the device.

“Sat-Fi offers the fastest, most affordable mobile satellite data plans and the clearest voice communications in the industry. These days, many executives and professionals can never really be totally incommunicado, even while on holiday. And in the era of social media, everyone in the family craves connectivity, especially on long journeys at sea. Sat-Fi enables as many as eight simultaneous users on a vessel to connect to Globalstar’s satellite network using their own devices – a true BYOD solution for users at sea. Using a Sat-Fi satellite hotspot, which is the world’s most powerful in its class, passengers and crew members can make and receive voice calls and email using an app that runs on Wi-Fi enabled devices including tablets, smartphones and laptops,” explains Murphy.

Ben Soussia thinks that in the maritime industry the satellite communication has fewer limits than any other means of communication. It offers the required coverage, which is the main important criteria, but there is always a lack of capacity and bandwidth, and he feels the industry is very far from the speeds you can enjoy over terrestrial networks.

Ewerling says the only limitation is the budget. “With enough capacity, ships could experience the same kind of connectivity speeds as we get on land. Of course, this would in turn be limited by the cost of the bandwidth required to deliver fibre broadband levels of speed! From a technical standpoint within the antennas realm, there are limitations to do with antenna size and the location of a vessel within a satellite’s footprint. With wide beam satellites, the closer you get to the edge of coverage, the larger the antenna needs to be to maintain a strong link. But spot beam HTS services are overcoming this issue. With HTS services like Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress, Telenor’s Thor 7 or Intelsat’s EpicNG, it is possible to get a strong high-throughput link to the satellite even on the edges of coverage, which has led to the introduction of new SAILOR 60cm antennas that provide the highest performance in this class, even on the edges of coverage.”

Harfouch adds: “The maritime environment brings with it some very specific challenges. Antennas and services have to provide reliable connectivity while the vessel is constantly moving within the six degrees of freedom. The antennas have to be able to track the satellite even in extreme sea conditions, so it can be technically challenging. However, today’s modern stabilised antennas do a fantastic job of keeping track of the satellite. Structures on board a ship can cause blockages to the satellite though, so sometimes we will employ dual antenna systems to make sure there is a 360-degree view of space regardless of the vessel’s position in relation to a satellite.”

Improvements and HTS

Crudge thinks the main drawback of using satellite for maritime communications is the cost of the service and the equipment that needs to be installed on board. If demand for connectivity continues to rise and equipment becomes more standardised, with more vessels using one system, costs will fall; however, the volume of vessels will never be large enough for equipment prices to fall to the level of mobile or land-based applications. This is why he thinks satellite will therefore always be a niche solution for years to come.

He says: “High-throughput satellite in general means that instead of satellites being designed with one to four beams using the same frequencies, they are designed with multiple beams over any one area, with many beams using the same frequencies. As these beams are smaller, it means that frequencies can be reused many times, which in turn means that the mbps throughput of these satellites varies between 10 and 100 times the capacity of a traditional wide beam satellite.”

“With smaller beams, the gain or amplification of the beam is much higher, so the number of mbps throughput for a given antenna size is that much greater. All this means that satellites are getting bigger in terms of the number of mbps they can deliver, which ultimately means cheaper prices in the market. However, these HTS satellite are more complicated and expensive to build, and even if the satellite is capable of delivering many multiples of the amount of capacity compared with a traditional wide beam satellite, it doesn’t mean all this capacity can be sold, as much of the capacity may be being provided in areas with low demand. Therefore, even though an HTS satellite can deliver ten times the capacity of a wide beam satellite, it doesn’t mean the price will be 10 times cheaper.”

Harfouch adds: “We will probably see more and more satellites in space, which means bandwidth will also become more and more available and coverage will continue to improve. Value-added services and business-critical solutions will become more integrated as further consolidation happens in the market. VAS are important, as they help satcom users get the most of their investment in connectivity.”

“HTS will provide more bandwidth to the market, which again will support congested areas such as the Suez/Panama canals and Singapore. Additionally, it will provide higher throughputs than available before on smaller antennas. But most important for Marlink is to stay agnostic and focus on providing the best possible connectivity network rather than being concerned with frequency or the type of satellite.

“As an example, it’s very important for many of our customers’ operations that their vessel can connect to multiple satellites at the same time, if one satellite’s view is blocked due to movement or other nearby objects. For many of our customers, the way we design our connectivity network and what it provides of value is far more important than which satellite it is. This is why we work with all major satellite network operators; we can ensure much higher reliability and availability of service on a global basis,” he concludes.