Maritime Terminal Advances Keep Vessels Connected

By | November 1, 2009 | Cover Story, Telecom

Gone are the romantic days of ships heading off to sea, isolating their crews from civilization for extended periods. Personnel on today’s marine vessels can send and receive e-mail, surf the Web, phone distant lands, check weather forecasts and update maps and charts while the operations team at the home office simultaneously monitors the health and status of engines and other vital systems.

As the speed of business increases onshore and afloat, new communication alternatives are allowing maritime concerns to increase efficiencies and drive down operating costs. The pace of the maritime market segment for satellite communications is quickening as a wide assortment of service providers and hardware vendors look to the world’s oceans and waterways for increasing sales revenues, ushering in new products and services with a sense of urgency. 

Market Overview

The maritime satellite communications market is made up of individual segments, including: shipping, oil and gas, fishing, cruise lines, and yachting. A fishing vessel with a crew of five has very different communication needs of a cruise liner housing thousands of people on holiday; hence, service providers and manufacturers are becoming much more granular in their offerings.

Contractors who come on board the vessel, as well as the crew, can now use their cell phone to communicate back to shore via our global satellite network. This sort of service has been restricted to large cruise ships and ferries in the past. — Watson, KVH

Recognizing that many of the standards used in the stabilized antenna market were originally derived by Marisat (Inmarsat) 30 years ago for its stabilized L-band terminals, and now no longer relevant, Cobham Satcom Marine Systems Sea Tel Products has been developing a set of updated specifications for maritime terminals derived over a number of years from extensive shipboard measurement of vibration and g-forces. Utilizing accelerometers and other instrumentation, the company measured the stresses terminals encountered in demanding conditions, such as the North Sea on a range of ocean-going vessels. Cobham’s 09 series of Sea Tel terminals incorporate these new specifications, and the resulting terminals come close to milspec standards for ruggedness.

“Our largest customers are service providers and they bundle the costs of a Sea Tel terminal into their monthly service charges,” says Peter Broadhurst, vice president, sales and marketing, says. “Reliability is the key. Our clients want terminals that not only work well, they want terminals which will last for many years with as few service interventions as possible, even if they are used in harsh conditions.”

Orbit Technology Group is celebrating the first anniversary of its flagship product, the OrSat-G global Ku-band terminal, which has a mechanical design that allows for a small radome. “The terminal must provide excellent RF performance, so the size of the antenna is important,” says Israel Adan, Orbit’s executive vice president, marketing and sales. “Our unique mechanical design allows for the use of a relatively large 1.15 meter antenna inside a small 1.28 meter radome, an optimal antenna-to-radome ratio. This compact package is easier and quicker to install and maintain compared to other terminals.” Orbit also has introduced an advanced distributed controller based on VxWorks real-time OS and a Window-based architecture, enabling comprehensive remote monitoring. Orbit is making plans to produce a multi-band, easily switchable C-/Ku-band antenna.

Although the yachting market is still important to KVH, the company continues to make inroads into the commercial maritime market. The company, which manufactures the TracPhone V7 terminal, also provides satellite services through its mini-VSAT Broadband network and expanded its coverage area from purely coastal waters to broad swaths of oceans, allowing ocean-going vessels to stay connected even while thousands of miles from land. An agreement with On-Waves allows ship owners to blanket their vessels with GSM coverage, says Chris Watson, KVH’s director of marketing. “On-Wave’s picocell technology turns a ship into a cell phone tower. Contractors who come on board the vessel, as well as the crew, can now use their cell phone to communicate back to shore via our global satellite network. This sort of service has been restricted to large cruise ships and ferries in the past. Due to the TracPhone V7’s small footprint and affordability, it can now be added to supply vessels, tankers and freighters. Since the TracPhone V7 weighs only 65 pounds, it can be installed on a vessel even while it is under way.”  

VSAT Market

Richard Deasington, director of vertical markets for iDirect, says the market for VSAT communications is expanding rapidly as vessels require a growing number of business applications. “Traditionally, deploying VSAT required large antenna systems and costly installations. Today, that’s no longer the norm, especially with the introduction of smaller Ku-band systems that are making VSAT affordable for a majority of the 200,000 vessels currently deployed. Getting to this point, however, required some important technology innovation. While smaller antenna systems can reduce the time and cost of a VSAT installation, the smaller antenna aperture transmits a broader beam, which can cause interference on adjacent satellites. The solution to this is a technology called spread spectrum. It’s a way of lowering the spectral density of the energy the antenna transmits.”

iDirect’s Evolution X5 remote router, a high-end commercial terminal, supports inbound direct sequence spread spectrum. The X5 can spread the energy by a factor of 2 or 4 times for maritime applications and 8 or 16 times for high-speed vehicle or aeronautical applications. Automatic beam switching also is incorporated into the X5 remote, allowing a vessel crossing an ocean to automatically switch from one satellite beam to another as it nears a new satellite footprint. The iDirect Global Network Management System maintains the vessel’s same IP address even as it moves from one teleport to another.

Data Technology Solutions (DTS), a global satellite service provider based in Breaux Bridge, La., has launched a satellite service aimed at maritime market using iDirect’s platform. Seamless global coverage will be achieved by using Telstar’s T11 and GE’s GE 23 satellites for the majority of open ocean coverage. The platform allows end users to select antennas from Sea Tel, Intellian, and Azimuth, all on one network. DTS can provide dedicated bandwidth to a fleet of vessels rather than selling discreet satellite circuits to each vessel. The pool of bandwidth is dynamically assigned, allowing more bandwidth to be assigned to anyone vessel for high throughput applications, such as HD video transmission. The extra bandwidth can be returned to the pool after the transmission.

Drawing heavily from its oil field experience, the DTS team has made improvements in the packaging of a broadband VSAT system, building a communication skid which can be shipped to a port via overnight delivery service anywhere in the world. Because it is lightweight, the unit can be flown via helicopter and installed while a vessel is at sea and under way. “Our skid mount design allows the vessel owner to order a communications package when they need it and ship if back when they are finished. They no longer have to come into port just to have a VSAT installed,” says president Michael Guidroz. The DTS Global Connect skids can be equipped with point-to-multipoint microwave, allowing companion vessels within a four-to-five mile radius to use the bandwidth from the VSAT. “Our microwave solution is more secure because you need matching sets of radio gear just to receive the signal. None of the major oil companies will allow their traffic to be transmitted over shared Wi-Fi networks,” he says.

DTS Global Connect supports a wide range of terminal sizes. “If the real estate is available, you will want to utilize a large antenna,” Guidroz says. “On a 200-foot ship, we can usually find the room we need for an install. You don’t want to use a 60-centimeter terminal just because it is cute. You use the small terminals on smaller vessels when there isn’t a lot of room. We are excited about the 60-centimeter market because there are many more smaller vessels than large ones. 60-centimeter terminals will allow many maritime companies to take advantage of broadband VSAT for the first time.” 

Bandwidth Availability

Intelsat provides both C- and Ku-band coverage to the maritime sector, blanketing the globe with bandwidth from its fleet of 50 satellites. Recognizing the significant demand within the maritime sector for always-on, true broadband access, Intelsat’s platform offers one IP address, automatic beam switching and is designed for maritime customers requiring constant, high-speed IP access for converged voice, data and Internet applications. “C-band applications aren’t growing as fast as Ku-band applications, but C-band is still very important,” says Jay Yass, Intelsat’s vice president of services. “Car transport vessels, oil tankers, and LNG transports use C-band services. While it may not be growing as fast as Ku, C-band is still an important growth area within the maritime sector.” Intelsat provides global coverage to its distribution partners, which then bundle the managed service with a stabilized VSAT platform. Intelsat’s distribution partners, in turn, offer broadband applications such as VoIP, e-mail, file transfers and other enterprise applications to their end users.

Over the years, the lack of demand for bandwidth coming from the world’s oceans has played a role in the design of new satellites and their associated footprints. With the advent of new maritime terminals, the demand for bandwidth on the high seas has increased significantly. To maintain its leadership role in serving the maritime sector, Intelsat is developing highly optimized beams to support mobility applications. “Providing transmission services for maritime applications remains extremely important to Intelsat and we work with our clients to tailor special purpose beams to meet their specific needs to support mobility applications,” says Yass.

As one of the largest service providers serving the maritime communications market, Vizada offers a range of satellite terminals and value-added services. In addition to their line of stabilized C- and Ku-band VSATs, the company also is a major distributor of MSS offerings, including the Inmarsat FleetBroadband terminals that support voice, data, and SMS services. “The new FleetBroadband 150 ushers in a new level of affordability for maritime terminals,” says Reinhold Lueppen, Vizada’s product director. “The terminal supports one voice channel and simultaneous data speeds up to 150 kilobits per second (kbps), which is ideal for sending e-mail, synching up a database or downloading software updates. The terminal is just 29 centimeters wide and it doesn’t weigh much, so they are easy to install. The ship’s electrician can install a terminal while the ship is at sea.” Lueppen points out that the FleetBroadband service utilizes spot beams made up of discreet channels. Inmarsat can dynamically assign channels in a specific geographic area if demand requires. “For instance, there is much more demand around Singapore Harbor than in the middle of the Pacific.” 

Hybrid Systems

Iridium has been making steady gains in market share in the maritime sector over the last several years with low-cost satellite phone and low-rate data terminals around the world. Iridium OpenPort was unveiled in late 2008, with beta tests and full market rollout in early 2009. While there are higher-bandwidth solutions on the market, offering full-speed Internet connectivity for sending very large files, surfing the Web, uploading and downloading photos and video clips, and playing online video games, this comes at a price. Iridium OpenPort fills an important gap by providing a higher bandwidth alternative that meets the real-world requirements for the great majority of ships with low capital investment and airtime costs — providing a rapid return on investment.

It is noteworthy that some shipping companies with very high data requirements are opting for VSAT as primary communications, and also pairing it with Iridium OpenPort as backup, providing global coverage when the ship is outside VSAT footprint. Significantly, Iridium is the only mobile satellite service that provides complete coverage over 100 percent of the Earth’s surface, including the extreme polar regions, which are assuming increased importance for shipping (Northwest and Northeast Passages are opening for seasonal shipping), fishing (many of the most active commercial fisheries are in Arctic and Antarctic waters), and oil and gas exploration. The Iridium OpenPort terminal has three independent voice circuits and a separate data port with scalable data rates from 9.6 to 128 kbps. The Iridium OpenPort antenna has no moving parts, since it does not require the stabilized pedestal needed for pointing to geostationary satellites. This translates into lower hardware costs, greater reliability and less maintenance.

Broadpoint, a Houston-based global telecommunication provider, offers both fixed and stabilized VSAT solutions to maritime and energy concerns around the world. However, in the Gulf of Mexico, where Broadpoint also operates a mobile wireless network, the company offers an interesting hybrid approach, bundling fixed VSATs with its GSM/GPRS/EDGE network. The fixed VSATs provide reliable communications while a rig is drilling and the GSM/GPRS/EDGE network provides communications while under tow. By eliminating the cost of an expensive stabilized platform, Broadpoint can provide broadband services at a more economical rate. “The Broadpoint hybrid solution is what makes us unique in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Errol Olivier, president and CEO. “The mobile wireless network supported by a C-band infrastructure is very reliable especially during inclement weather, unlike the rain fade experienced with Ku-band satellite.” This hybrid approach of fixed VSAT and GSM/GPRS/EDGE network allows Broadpoint to offer a different solution. The GSM/GPRS/EDGE network also is used as emergency backup to the stabilized satellite solutions. 

Conclusion

There is a definite push to develop smaller, less expensive satellite terminals. The result is less deck space required, quicker and less complex installations, and less idle time for a ship. Less expensive terminal costs lower the barriers of entry, allowing more vessel owners to afford satellite communication terminals which provide increased throughput and more powerful features. Another broad trend is global coverage with maritime VSAT enjoying a much broader reach. No longer restricted to just coastal areas, the footprint of several VSAT offerings blanket large portions of the world’s oceans. Expanded satellite footprints, coupled with automatic beam switching technology, allows vessels to utilize broadband VSAT even in the middle of an ocean, once the exclusive domain of MSS services.

Collaboration will be a key trend in the future. Several manufacturers and service providers championed their ability to work with competitor’s services in a hybrid approach, where smart devices can investigate the different communication alternatives and route the traffic accordingly based on a predefined set of conditions, providing the vessel owner the choice whether to prioritize availability, the fastest connection, or least expensive communications technology.

The maritime market still will see significant growth over the next few years as vessel owners take advantage of a new generation of advanced maritime terminals and services.

Greg Berlocher has been active in the satellite industry for twenty five years and is the President of Transcendent Global Networks LLC.

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