Mobile roaming services in 4G, LTE and 5G complement satellite communications for crew, passengers and operational connectivity
Ship communications close to shore and in ports will be revolutionised by the introduction of 5G connectivity this decade, with 5G networks already operating within major port cities worldwide. There are firm plans to roll out this technology across other cities with coverage over ports and coastal waters.
Vessels currently use coastal 4G, long term evolution (LTE) and 3G networks for faster communications than available over satellite, with seafarers and ferry passengers using their own devices to access online services, social media and other applications over 4G.
Vodafone Roaming Services is one of the main providers of this network coverage to shipping with distribution through maritime communications providers (MCPs).
Vodafone senior vice president of roaming services Connie Tang said 4G can be more reliable and faster than satellite communications. “When ships are in coastal areas, they get faster download speeds for more telematics and crew communications,” she said. “We support smartphone applications and data services on vessels.”
4G is a viable alternative for operational and crew welfare services on ships when vessels are close to shore, with coverage also available in ports worldwide.
“There is a new concept of mobile private networks and campus-type services in ports,” said Ms Tang. “There is 4G now and in northern Europe we are deploying 5G. There are 5G hotspots in Germany and the UK and we are building more coverage,” she said.
5G hotspots are also being deployed in east Asian ports, where LTE is already popular. “We are adopting LTE in Chinese ports and in Singapore and Vietnam,” said Ms Tang.
“Malaysia is advanced, Indonesia is not far behind and we are supporting new carriers in the Philippines. China and Japan are leading in 5G development and there will be huge opportunities in Asia.”
Behind Vodafone’s services are intercarrier agreements for mobility coverage and roaming, which applies to ships and crew.
Vodafone provides coverage both through its own network and through its partnerships with more than 700 roaming partners around the world. It acts as a wholesale connectivity provider and MCPs use this platform to offer 4G connectivity to their end customers. MCPs develop functionalities specifically for ship operator requirements, such as reporting, remote control, monitoring and voice.
Vodafone’s 4G/LTE maritime footprint covers 93% of the world’s coastlines. Its global roaming SIM card works in all countries, with no need to swap local SIM cards as vessels cross borders.
MCPs install technology on ships to identify the most reliable, accessible and cost-effective routeing of communications, with seamless switching between satellite, VSAT and 4G/ LTE services.
On some ships, owners have installed devices to extend LTE across the vessel. “When LTE is on board, traffic increases and speeds encourage usage near coasts, said Ms Tang. “Once seafarers know what is possible, they then work to that.”
Vodafone launched its Maritime Platform in September 2019 based on its global roaming platform. “We work through our MCPs to provide connectivity and digital enablement for IoT applications,” said Ms Tang.
“MCP devices on ships can track different satellite and 4G/LTE services and decide which ones to use for least-cost routeing, reliability and availability – these are the factors determining which technology to go for,” she said. “As cloud applications become popular a lot of data will need to be up and downloaded.”
On ferries, 4G/LTE services can be extended to passengers. “On ferries, roaming services become critical to support passenger needs,” she said. “With our intercarrier agreement this is enabled for voice and online applications.”
Vodafone’s roaming services offer codes and coverage on 700 networks globally, covering 224 destinations in 190 countries around the world.
4G/LTE service coverage ranges to around 10-20 km offshore depending on the positioning of the communications towers. This can be extended if hardware is installed on ships.