With surging demand for higher bandwidth at lower costs, operators and vendors are looking for ways to increase coverage and improve spectral efficiency for maritime
Maritime communications have changed dramatically from basic voice and low-data applications used for safety, to fully-integrated IP applications. Companies are realising that better and faster connectivity can bring about business optimisation and increase profits, while improving crew morale.
Gez Draycott, Vice President, Portfolio Management, Gobal Mobility Solutions at SES, says: One example is the luxury cruise market, which up to 2011 was seeing connectivity of 4Mbps but is today enjoying broadband connectivity over 300Mbps. The high-speed connectivity provided by O3b Networks to Royal Caribbean is providing a home-away-from-home experience. Existing customers are satisfied, and a new class of clientele who seek connectivity are quickly attracted to this new way of travelling. And more importantly, the improved crew welfare brought about by the fast connectivity is key to retaining staff and attracting new employees.
Tore Morten Olsen, President Maritime at Marlink, explains that more bandwidth for lower cost is enabling shipping companies to use applications that help them operate more efficiently and provide better crew and passenger communication services.
He says vessel operations and passenger/crew welfare are all drivers that have changed satcom in recent years and generated more demand for bandwidth. New satellites coming to market with higher bandwidths at lower cost have made it possible for many more shipping companies to benefit from satellite communications.
Its now commonplace to have Wi-Fi networks for passengers and crews that are separate from the operational network, meaning all users can be confident of their ability to access the available bandwidth. The need for bandwidth continues to grow, though, so there is a requirement for innovation in the industry.
This is partly answered by the introduction of new Ka- and Ku-band high-throughput satellite (HTS) services combined with Marlinks own multi-band approach, which seamlessly integrates multiple carriers to ensure high availability of connectivity using the best cost/performance service available, according to where a vessel is. At the end of the day, its about ensuring the customer gets what they pay for, so we combine all VSAT bands, L-band MSS, 3G/4G and even terrestrial services to ensure high availability and cost-effectiveness.
Early VSAT platforms introduced important innovations such as uplink power control, dynamic bandwidth allocation and beam switching. Unfortunately, since most of those features operated independently, the results were unpredictable and difficult to manage particularly at a larger scale.
According to Kevin McCarthy, VP of Market Development at Newtec: The next generation of VSAT platforms for maritime communications will be required to work at an unprecedented scale, with powerful HTS spot beams demanding more robust equipment and advanced transmission standards. HTS will also create new challenges, with a large number of small beams. With this in mind, beam switching logic must become smarter and multidimensional, allowing network operators to continually manage factors like load balance, regulatory restrictions, cost and weather.
Oversized mechanical antennas have traditionally been used in the maritime industry and often require increased maintenance and deck real estate. New coding techniques have resulted in the advancement of baseband design and the introduction of smaller antennas. Coupled with improved satellite design, this means connectivity can be optimised, resulting in significant changes to antenna design.
We are now seeing a shift to electronically-steered antennas (ESAs) which are flat in appearance and easier on the eye. These low-profile antennas are being designed with additional capabilities to transmit and receive in multiple frequency bands. Advanced innovations include the ability to access multiple satellites without mechanical realignment, says Draycott.
Jan Michelsen, VP Maritime Business Development at Cobham SATCOM, thinks maritime antenna size is directly linked to HTS services and the spot beam configuration they use. Traditional wide beam satellites have a single beam covering a larger area, so in order to get acceptable performance on the edges of coverage, a 1m antenna system is generally needed.
However, because HTS satellites use multiple overlapping spot beams, the challenges of securing a strong link on the edges of the beam are mitigated. This paves the way for smaller antenna systems. We recently launched two new 60cm antennas that take advantage of the physics.
The SAILOR 60 GX for Fleet Xpress and the SAILOR 600 VSAT Ka for Thor 7 are able to provide a strong link anywhere in the footprint. They both use the same unique fusion of carbon fibre and aluminium to add strength and stiffness, therefore reducing the impact of vibration on the link, whilst keeping the weight below 37kg.
The fact that we can now enable a strong link on 60cm antennas throughout the satellites footprint means that smaller vessels (yachts, fishing vessels and workboats, for instance) can now seriously consider moving their communications from L-band MSS to the higher bandwidth pay monthly VSAT model. This will have significant impact on the efficiency, crew welfare and safety of those vessels, adds Michelsen.
All this new hardware, and the growing efficiency of satellite beams, means growing availability of faster connectivity. With the appearance of HTS like Intelsat Epic, Telenor Thor7 and Inmarsat GX, the potential for much faster connectivity is there. Its important to recognise, though, that most users dont demand much.
On average, a ship owner has a link providing 170-180kbps. Of course, there are certain vessel types that need faster connections. We have provided links up to 12Mbps to seismic survey ships, for instance. And the cruise industry is always looking for more bandwidth and better experiences for paying customers. Generally, though, its more important to provide reliable guaranteed bandwidth that is managed well, than go for the highest speed service a satellite can deliver, explains Olsen.
Draycott adds that there is an approximately tenfold increase in throughput being delivered, depending on the application. Ground antenna terminals no longer need bulky amplifier units and large apertures, because satellites are being designed and built with increased performances. While the ground solutions are becoming more compact, the trade-off is often in terminal gain. The antenna receivers and transmitters on SES satellites themselves provide much higher gain and amplification, enabling more opportunities for antenna developers to reduce the physical size of their products.
Higher speeds are only useful when there is continuous connectivity on vessels. When a vessel crosses the ocean, it goes through many different satellites overhead. Most modern antennas can easily switch between different satellites, and in the past there were considerable pricing differences during the switch. Nowadays many vessels have packages.
Draycott says: SES is in the enviable position of having global satellite coverage, so our main concern is not switching between operators but to make sure we have seamless solutions for customers to enjoy connectivity without the worry of switching from operator to operator. In building platforms using the latest technology but with an agnostic approach, we allow providers and users to access networks that fit their specific application needs while managing the switching accordingly on their behalf.
Keith Murray, Product Manager at Thuraya, explains that there are often two or more systems on board with an antenna for each satellite service, such as an L-band service used by Thuraya and a VSAT system on a Ku-band or Ka-band service.
A ships connection is then controlled via a router or a priority box that selects the service based on availability. More complex electronic message handling systems can even select what particular type of traffic is passed over which service in the most cost-effective way. Thuraya offers a package to support this type of application called the VSAT Back-Up Service. This service ensures that customers have the security of an on-board dual redundancy communications system which has a minimal impact on the cost, says Murray.
McCarthy says Newtec has been focused on pushing the limits of spectral efficiency, to reduce costs for its customers. Its recently announced MDM5000 satellite modem aims to reduce capacity costs by up to 50%, with new waveforms like DVB-S2X and Newtecs unique Mx-DMA return technology.
In addition, our upcoming Newtec Dialog 1.3 release will also include an advanced beam-switching engine, which will provide unprecedented control over beam-switching logic. A rich set of APIs will facilitate network load balance, least-cost routing and regulatory compliance.
Scale is the next big challenge for mobile VSAT operators. With the advent of HTS and industry consolidation, networks are getting larger and bandwidth demand is growing exponentially. First-generation VSAT platforms and modems were never designed for this level of scale. VSAT platforms and modem hardware must become more powerful and future-proof, supporting higher data rates and extending upgrade cycles. Satellite networks should also be more transparent, integrating more seamlessly with terrestrial networks. Dynamic bandwidth allocation and beam-switching schemes will need to be more efficient and scalable in order to sustain the next wave of growth, adds McCarthy.
Marlinks Olsen thinks that in addition to satellite and beam management, solutions like Marlink XChange offer a wealth of functionality, including offering a single point for remote access onto a vessels IT network, for software updates, troubleshooting, management of onboard data and voice traffic, etc. He says XChange also helps the shipping company to provide easy, low-cost crew communications, even using personal devices over Wi-Fi.
However, challenges still exist, and Olsen says having enough bandwidth to serve all vessels in a congested area is a potential challenge, but one that Marlink has overcome through its partnerships with HTS satellite operators and technical innovations such as XChange and strong network management. Having our own network of teleports fully interconnected with a dedicated terrestrial backbone is a key feature enabling us to control and guarantee the services globally.
Depending on the size of the vessels and the routes they travel, smaller vessels may require regional-centric coverage, while larger vessels may need global coverage. In all cases, they require high bandwidth to support high-throughput crew-centric applications. At the same time, satellite communications operations must be as efficient as possible.
The recent revolution in smaller antenna designs and new satellites has resulted in more powerful satellites with comprehensive coverage being launched and the ability to utilise connectivity effectively. Smaller vessels are also finding that it is more cost-effective to utilise regional dedicated maritime beams such as SES-6 and SES-9, as opposed to the global beams that are more efficient for larger, global vessels.
With HTS, the maritime industry will be able to get faster and better connectivity with competitive commercial plans, concludes Draycott.