Increasing data throughput and enhancing network efficiency are important aspects of the fast-paced development of standardized and customized satellite communications at sea, according to Marlink.
In March 2012, Marlink completed integration of iDirects Evolution® X5 platform and latest operating software release on its Ku-band network. Vessels operating Marlinks WaveCall services have now all received the required on board equipment, enabling increased reliability for voice, email, Internet and remote business applications.
The upgrade to Evolution hardware and software is a key element in meeting evolving customer requirements in the maritime sector for increased bandwidth and more reliable and efficient solutions for core voice and data connectivity.
iDirect Evolution is based on DVB-S2 with Adaptive Coding and Modulation (ACM), which provides significant bandwidth efficiency gains over legacy systems. ACM helps Marlink ensure maximum service uptime for maritime vessels by automatically adjusting signal strength to overcome rain fade outages. Additionally, iDirects built-in Group Quality of Service features allow Marlink to efficiently control how it allocates and prioritizes shared bandwidth by customer group, and even application type.
iDirect initially rolled-out their technology for Ku-band services. However, at the start of May, Marlink introduced new C-band services on iDirect, as well, opening new options for customers using Sealink global C-band coverage for business critical applications. The services will be among the first in the industry to use DVB-S2 with ACM on regional, multi-regional and global maritime C-band.
These developments in Marlinks VSAT network and service offerings reflect the competitiveness and fluidity of the satellite communications market at sea. No more than a decade ago, there were only five or six maritime service providers, working with platform and ship operators to pioneer high bandwidth connectivity at sea. Today, there are literally hundreds of service providers, all able to offer some form of connectivity, be it based on Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, GSM or VSAT.
The defining factor differentiating suppliers is their ability to offer standardized as well as customized solutions. The customers with high bandwidth requirements in the previous decade, served by the original satellite service providers such as Marlink, were cruise vessels that needed high bandwidth as well as offshore platforms and support vessels who required the ability to monitor, collaborate and access business critical applications. Later, maritime transport vessel requirements for connectivity grew quickly, but the need for customized solutions is as strong today as it ever has been.
Customized VSAT For Specialist Applications
Marlinks role as a customized VSAT provider is usually within the offshore and cruise sectors, developing complex networks based on Ku- and C-band Sealink services. As service configuration varies in customized VSAT, it is extremely advantageous that the service provider operates its own teleports. Such ownership ensures the flexibility required to meet the specific requirements of the vessel owner. The advanced requirements of these customers is due to their sophisticated operationscommunication based on customized VSAT can save time and money, by connecting them with experts, colleagues, other stakeholders and their own software and hardware systems.
GC Rieber, an offshore vessel operator, uses customized VSAT as its communication backbone. The company specializes in the operation of vessels within subsea, ice/support and marine seismic sectors. This means communications are an integral part of satisfying its own customers needs as well as improving efficiency of the companys operations.
Essentially, the satellite communications provided by Marlinks Sealink VSAT ensures always-on and high-speed connectivity for continuous and immediate replication of information on board the vessel and onshore. The primary applications for the connectivity are email, Internet access and cost-effective voice for telephone calls as well as replication of PMS and QHSE databases.
According to GC Rieber, bandwidth provided by the VSAT is prioritized for customers hiring the vessels, which commonly includes seismic, subsea and oil research companies as well as research departments within governments or universities. If there is a charterer thats hired a vessel, it could have its own customers on board who each have their own specific needs for satellite communications. GC Rieber, therefore, has a wide-range of requirements that must be accommodated including support for the companys strategy that ensures diverse communications are available.
Providing this flexibility requires the ability to control the entire value chain. There must be a team of engineers who are able to establish the system based on specific requirements. Experience, creativity, industry weight and teleports owned by the service provider combine to enable complex systems that offer simple services to customers with very specialized needs.
Standardized VSAT For Maritime Transport
The need for customized communication services in the offshore (and cruise) maritime sectors differs from the maritime transportation market, where L-band products such as FleetBroadband, legacy Inmarsat services and Iridium OpenPort/Pilot are most prolific. Standardized Ku-band VSAT is starting to gain market share as a certain amount of commoditization has witnessed the introduction of new products and services that enable ship owners to select off-the-shelf services and packages.
Maritime transport companies generally require less complex systems than offshore and cruise operators. This is because their core use of connectivity is mostly crew welfare and lighter operational communication. Essentially, the applications in use, such as email, web browsing, VPN and some remote monitoring of engineering and operations, are relatively standard. VSAT can be used to offer lower-cost communication and is the most common service in use. Additionally, vessels may also sail with a secondary L-band system, most commonly FleetBroadband, to ensure a base level of connectivity globally should VSAT coverage become unavailable. This approach is gaining in popularity, with 80 Marlink Bundled Offerings featuring Ku-band as primary and L-band as back-up communication being sold since the launch in 2011.
Marlinks WaveCall service was developed as a standardized solution to fit customer requirements with little or no customization. The service is live on hundreds of vessels worldwide and is a preferred choice for large fleets looking for the same solution across multiple vessels. For instance, over the next three years, all Odfjell managed vessels (40 in total) will be equipped with Internet access by installation of the WaveCall VSAT. The company tested several Internet access systems on board five vessels for a lengthy period of time in order to gain experience with the different VSAT technologies from different suppliers and to then integrate Internet access via existing ICT systems.
After evaluating several tenders from market-leading VSAT providers, Odfjell decided to implement Marlinks proposal. Alongside the WaveCall service were several Value Added Services such as web filtering, Voice Over IP, private networking between ship and office and a secure remote access to the vessel for remote support. The solution requires two new antennas to be installed, where an L-band antenna will act as a backup system to be used in areas where there is no VSAT coverage yet. Older satellite communication systems will be replaced by the new systems.
Although a standardized service, Marlink and the Odfjell ICT department have developed technical solutions to optimize the link as much as possible in order to enhance the user experience. In addition to Internet access, the vessels will also receive IP based phones with local Norwegian or Singaporean phone numbersthe Voice Over IP service will offer a much better voice quality as compared to regular satellite phone calls, while being less expensive for the crew to use.
A fixed, therefore predictable, monthly fee will cover the costs for the required equipment and the airtime for the Marlink WaveCall solution, with the option to combine with Value Added Services. This fixed monthly price of the communication package has justified roll out of this communication solution to all vessels within a maximum period of 36 months, according to an Odfjell statement.
State-of-play In The Maritime Market
From an industry perspective, maritime satellite communications are still going through a change-phase, which is being accelerated by the introduction of new services. For instance, many shipping companies have, or are considering, a move to standardized VSAT from FleetBroadband. Operators are looking at Ku-band VSAT and the additional bandwidth benefits and fixed monthly pricing it offers as a serious alternative to L-band. Indeed, with ongoing development of global coverage, Ku-band is becoming ever more attractive to maritime companies regardless of the sector they operate in.
Ka-band is becoming more prominent too. Global Xpress, according to Inmarsat, will be live and fully functional in 2015 and Marlink is committed to offering this new service to the market. Likewise, the Company also demonstrates its technology and platform independence by offering alternative Ka-band services, based on the Thor satellite, which are scheduled to go live before the new Inmarsat service is fully available. These will be the first Ka-band services available for maritime customers.
As Ka-band is the target of a great deal of interest currently in the industry, its important that ship owners recognise that Ku-band already offers near global coverage, and, with the use of DVB-S2 with ACM and Automatic Beam Switching, the services already available offer the near global seamless coverage that Ka-band providers are focusing on for their forthcoming offerings.
Recognising such flexibility is vital to ship operators. Marlink will embrace Ka-band and ensure that its customers across all sectors have access to cost-effective and available services on a global basis. Additionally, the company firmly supports other services, including Iridium and Thuraya, both of which are established as proven technologies for vessels operating across the globe.
Regardless of the platform, band or technology being used, satellite communication has become a pre-requisite for commercial vessels and certainly one of the factors that has helped shape services that offer tangible ROI. If a survey vessel costs $100,000 per day, the communication budget is a small percentage of this expense. Over time, communication costs can become quite significant. However, if the connectivity offered by the communication services can save money in operations, such as instantly delivering seismic data to shore, then the communication budget becomes an operational cost that provides a significant return on that investment.
About the author
Tore Morten Olsen has 16 years of experience in the satellite communications sector working for Telenor and Vizada. He started in 1994 as a technical product manager and moved into the commercial field responsible for the governmental market sector in 1997. In 1999, Tore Morten moved to Slovakia to lead the international satellite communications activities of Telenor and he returned to Norway to take responsibility of Telenor Satellite Networks AS in 2004.
Since 1999 Tore Morten has held several senior positions within the company to include CEO Telenor Slovakia spol.s.r.o, Chairman of the Board of Directors in several Telenor Satellite Networks companies, Country Manager for Telenor in Slovakia, CEO of Telenor Satellite Networks. Following the establishment of Vizada, Tore Morten has taken responsibility of the Maritime VSAT and Mobile Satellite Services retail activities of the company, operating under the Marlink brand. He is currently CEO of Marlink Group and holds numerous Board positions in the Vizada group.
Tore Morten holds a M.Sc in Telecommunications from the Norwegian Technical University from 1993, and has participated in Executive MBA programs both at Wharton Business School in the U.S., Insead in France and Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden.