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Is live video chat onboard ship feasible?

The promise of ever greater quantities of bandwidth and airtime is reshaping maritime communications. However, the constraints of satellite delivery mean that applications such as video and Voip must still be optimised for end users, says Globecomm’s Martin Killian

Maritime communications have come a long way in a short space of time, and the near future will see them go further at an even faster pace. A new generation of high throughput satellites (HTS), supporting much higher bandwidth, present new opportunities to maritime, energy and offshore users who are used to the reliable if unspectacular performance of L band. HTS services, designed for mobility customers and theoretically offering connectivity at speeds close to land-based broadband, could finally usher in the connected ship: fully wired for data gathering, energy efficiency, crew welfare and the pleasure of always-on communication with the shore.

Even before the first high-throughput satellites are in service, the changes are already apparent. Just like their shore-based counterparts, officers and crews are being promised ever-increasing bandwidth and apparently unlimited data plans. A recent maritime communications conference heard an airtime distribution partner describe a crew e-mail and internet service that needs to be controlled, not for web access but by time so that crew got their mandated hours of rest.

So the stage seems set if not for a revolution, then at least for continued evolution. A change from sub-broadband communication speed to consistently available 512k-1MB services and above promises to open the door to a range of applications, moving the crew from phones and e-mail to always-on internet, and replacing scarce shipboard data with structured information drawn from real-time monitoring and optimisation systems, too.

There are regulatory drivers; tracking, monitoring and electronic chart updates, and many potential value-adds; remote management and IT support, scheduling, weather services, Voip and videoconferencing. But in step with this evolution comes a short-term risk: airtime vendors and service providers are raising expectations beyond what can be delivered onboard ship in a cost-effective and practical manner.

The torrent of data that we experience ashore, to a growing variety of devices, has also forced the pace of application adoption onboard ship, principally because seafarers, not unreasonably, would like to do the things afloat that they do ashore. These include enjoying not just unfettered access to the internet, but using applications for chat, voice and video calls.

As a result, this area of data traffic is booming, even as voice calling continues to decline. But the reality is that outside VSAT installations, it will be a long time before the vast majority of ships experience anything like this throughput. Many may never do so. This may be good news for legacy L-band providers, but for ship owners and their crews, there will be a long tail of demand not just for L-band but for applications specifically tailored for use over maritime satellite connections.

Demand for Voip and video chat onboard ships is growing strongly. Ship visits by Globecomm Maritime staff often start with the crew asking if they will be getting video chat or instant messaging “this time”.

But even though demand is increasing, no one should imagine that such applications are designed or suited for use onboard a ship. Because they are usually free to download, the perception in the user’s mind is that they are somehow free to use, too. In fact, the opposite is true. Using current voice and video chat programmes onboard a ship over a data circuit will chew through bandwidth faster than you can reload a scratch card. In doing so, it distorts airtime traffic figures, bolstering the impression that demand for crew data usage is virtually unquenchable.

The law of unintended consequences has contrived to create a situation where on a ship with more restricted bandwidth availability, the majority of traffic will be business communications. Install a VSAT or a larger Inmarsat access plan and the business portion diminishes as the crew make more and more use of the internet, chat and the like. But they will end up with much higher bills if they are paying for the access themselves.

So what’s the way forward? It would be easy here to say that the maritime industry is old fashioned and a lagging adopter of new technologies and leave it at that. But the fact is that mariners and managers alike want to be able to use these technologies. Videoconferencing in particular has been touted for a decade or more as the solution for fixing technical problems without the need to dispatch an engineer to attend the ship. As a driver of crew welfare, the value of Voip and video can hardly be denied.

We have been hearing for at least a decade about the revolution in maritime communications. It could be that for some users, the HTS-era will deliver them a much better internet experience at sea. But that revolution is not going to reach everyone. It is Globecomm Maritime’s contention that shipping will to some extent continue to be subject to severe limits on bandwidth compared to shore-side users. Therefore, to deliver anything like a shore-side experience, ships will need to work smarter with their bandwidth, using optimised hardware and software products that keep bills at reasonable levels while giving access to the services that users need.