Investing in new satellite communications allows container shipping lines to enhance crew connectivity and operational data transmissions
Container shipping will have a greater choice of communications technology with new constellations of satellites being launched and networks introduced.
Traditional L-band communications remain important to shipping for voice calls, messaging, email and internet access, with Ku-band and Ka-band VSAT enabling crew to access online applications, social media and digital content.
The launch of high throughput satellite (HTS) constellations in the past five years has lessened bandwidth shortages for shipping lines. These include Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) network, the basis of its Ka-band Fleet Xpress service to container ships, which includes FleetBroadband L-band back-up.
For Ku-band technology, Intelsat and SES have been the main investors in HTS, with Intelsat’s EpicNG constellation covering most coastal seas.
HTS delivers more capacity to vessels for crew welfare packages, says KVH Industries chief operating officer Brent Bruun, who has seen technology and crew welfare applications advance over the past decade. “It is now about smart phones and applications, social media and entertainment media,” he explains.
KVH provides Ku-band bandwidth to ships using Intelsat’s HTS network, FlexMaritime service and capacity from Sky Perfect JSAT. This is accessed through KVH’s own range of TracPhone VSAT antennas.
“There will be a massive amount of bandwidth in the market,” says Mr Bruun. “We can take advantage of this technology to provide more robust services for crew welfare and operational requirements.”
KVH provides Ku-band connectivity to container ships through its AgilePlans Global service. When paired with a TracPhone V11-HTS antenna with a 1-m diameter, ships can obtain data speeds as high as 20 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up to the satellite.
If there is only space for a 60-cm diameter TracPhone V7-HTS antenna, data speeds of 10 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up can be acheived.
KVH also supports crew wellbeing and charities that assist seafarers’ communications. In March it introduced free voice over IP calls to International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN)’s SeafarerHelp Hotline. This provides confidential and multilingual communications to seafarers to support their mental wellbeing worldwide and is available 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
Satellite operators are investing in geostationary satellites, with Inmarsat the most ambitious in its constellation building. It is expanding the GX constellation from four satellites to 12 by 2024. Its latest addition, GX5, was launched in November 2019 and positioned to cover Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
This is due to be commissioned later this year to deliver twice the capacity of the entire existing GX fleet of four spacecraft combined. Other GX satellites will be installed into geostationary orbit to boost capacity in Asia/Pacific and the Americas, plus two payloads will be commissioned to provide Ka-band coverage over the Arctic.
Over the next three years more services with higher bandwidth and less delay in transmissions, known as latency, are coming to shipping. These will provide greater bandwidth for data transmissions, access to cloud services, internet of things (IoT) technology, real-time monitoring, tracking services and for streaming media content for crew.
“There will be higher bandwidth with less latency,” says VSAT service provider Castor Marine director Mark Olthuis. This will be sourced from new constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites being planned or launched this year.
“LEO-based VSAT has less latency than geostationary satellites,” Mr Olthuis tells Riviera Maritime Media. “Cloud applications depend on internet-smooth operations,” he says. With less latency in the signal from the shore to satellite and onwards to the ship, or the opposite direction, the less erratic online services will be.
“There is investment and developments coming and many constellations are being planned. There are still technology developments and a lot of testing to come,” says Mr Olthuis. This is to verify existing antennas can track LEO satellites.
One of the most progressive LEO constellations is being commissioned by OneWeb. It intends to launch more than 600 satellites in the next two years. OneWeb is investing up to US$3Bn in the world’s most populous satellite constellation to deliver broadband around the globe. It has worked with antenna manufacturer Intellian to test its services with Intellian hardware.
They signed a contract in March 2020 resulting in Intellian starting commercial production of OneWeb user terminals. A wide range of dedicated terminals will be produced in various antenna sizes for merchant shipping, with the potential to upgrade existing VSAT for LEO satellites.
OneWeb head of global maritime sales Noémie de Rozieres says latency from its LEO constellation, orbiting at a height of 1,200 km, will be far less than geostationary satellites that are set at heights of about 36,000 km. “Our service will have latency of less than 50 milliseconds,” she tells Riviera Maritime Media. “This is 10 times less than VSAT over geostationary satellites.”
LEO-based VSAT will enable owners to fully connect their fleets. “Merchant ships will become remote offices at sea with affordable and fibre-like connectivity,” says Ms de Rozieres. “This will enable cloud-based systems with low latency for all vessels. It will facilitate remote monitoring, crew welfare applications, plus seafarer training at sea, interactive video, 3D programs and real-time guidance for onboard maintenance from shore.”
OneWeb’s low-latency Ku-band will also facilitate telemedicine, video surveillance and real-time machinery monitoring once it is fully operational. “We are planning to have global commercial services in Q4 2021,” says Ms de Rozieres.
LEO satellite communications are already available to shipping over Iridium’s L-band constellation. Iridium operates 66 crosslinked satellites, providing global connectivity, including over the polar regions. In February, it expanded vessel-to-satellite communications on its Iridium Certus service, and over these LEO satellites, from 352 kbps to 704 kbps by introducing a firmware upgrade for onboard terminals manufactured by Cobham Satcom and Thales.
4G/LTE connectivity provides VSAT alternative
Container ships operating close to coastlines, in terminals or inland waterways can access global mobile phone networks over 4G, long term evolution (LTE) and soon, 5G. Vodafone is one of the main providers of this network coverage to shipping with distribution through maritime communications partners (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 says. “We support smartphone applications and data services on vessels.”
For container ships, 4G is a viable alternative for operational and crew welfare services.
“Behind our service we have intercarrier agreements for mobility coverage and roaming, which applies to ships and crew,” says Ms Tang.
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, says 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,” says Ms Tang.
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 positioning of the communications towers. This can be extended if hardware is installed on ships.
Shipznet MC 300 extends communications up to 60 km offshore, using a radome antenna and router to deliver speeds up to 300 Mbps. It provides flexible 4G near-shore communications with up to six SIM cards with prepaid services.
Antenna technology developed to support ship VSAT
New VSAT antennas will improve satellite communications with enhanced internal technology and performance. Existing models are being upgraded and new types of terminal are being developed.
Cobham Satcom director of maritime broadband Jens Ewerling expects plenty of technical developments to come this year as antennas are prepared for new satellite constellations.
“We have strengthened our Ku-band business by developing, optimising and tuning Ku-band antennas,” says Mr Ewerling. “We have made the hardware more digi-stable for ship operations and service providers.”
He says antennas will be re-engineered for Ka-band communications. “We see developments coming towards the end of 2020,” he says. “Inmarsat is going with integrated transmit and receive as one transceiver for mass production of Global Xpress (GX) antennas with powerful 4.5-9 W transceivers.”
These antennas will work across the whole GX constellation and will be optimised for the more powerful GX satellites GX-5 to GX-9.
“This is integration at a high level, and can be included in other products that then need to be hardened for maritime,” says Mr Ewerling.
This includes ViaSat-2, a regional service focused on Americas and across the North Atlantic. Maritime antennas for these services are further integrated with terminal hardware.
“We launched our antennas for ViaSat-2 in October 2019,” says Mr Ewerling, “with a fully integrated modem and radio device in the antenna, a receiver and transmitter in one rugged device.”
Intellian has gained approval for two of its new-generation antennas for both Ku-band and Ka-band VSAT. Inmarsat approved Intellian’s GX100NX antenna, with a 1-m diameter dish, for GX Ka-band communications following testing at its facilities in Ålesund, Norway, and successful sea trials.
GX100NX supports 2.5 GHz Ka wideband networks and is supplied with a 5-W block up-converter (BUC) as standard. Vessel owners have options to upgrade to a high-power 10-W BUC for higher capacity and speed of communications with Inmarsat’s GX constellation.
Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout says GX100NX antennas will enable improvements to Fleet Xpress services in terms of bandwidth and connectivity speed to ships.
“Our FX platform has been installed on more than 8,000 vessels,” he says. “It is much more than a VSAT connectivity pipe, due to fast-growing value-added services such as Fleet Data, Fleet Edge and Fleet Secure, and the rapid development of our application provider ecosystem.”
In addition, Intellian gained certification from satellite operator Intelsat for its NX-series antennas. Intelsat has endorsed using marine antennas v85NX and v100NX over its IntelsatOne Flex service that provides connectivity through the EpicNG and existing fleet of satellites. v85NX has an antenna of 80 m diameter and v100NX is a 1-m diameter antenna.
The NX series feature a single cable for power and signal to below-deck terminal equipment. Intellian added a process wizard in the antenna’s AptusNX operating software for simple commissioning and remote maintenance.