Smaller antennas, flexible plans and rising communications demand is fuelling significant growth in VSAT, as explained by leaders in this sector during SMM in Hamburg, Germany
Falling costs, rising seafarer connectivity demands, more data transmission needs and smaller terminals are key reasons why owners of smaller vessels, such as workboats, fishing vessels, ferries and tugs are considering VSAT for their communications requirements.
These were some of the key trends top managers of satellite owners and communications providers described at the SMM exhibition in Hamburg, Germany. All this has led service providers to produce packages for sectors that have previously used slower L-band services.
Vessel owners are investing in VSAT to improve bandwidth for operational and commercial reasons and to provide internet access and voice services to crew, said Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout.
He explained that uptake of Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress Ka-band VSAT has dramatically increased this year in the merchant maritime sector. However, more small and medium-sized vessel operators “are at the start of their digital voyage” and are becoming increasingly aware that their “existing ship-to-shore communications infrastructure is not sufficient to realise their goals” said Mr Spithout.
“There is a portion of the maritime market that are starting to need Fleet Xpress so we have diversified for fishing vessels, exploration cruise ships, superyachts and smaller passenger vessels,” he said.
Greater demand for VSAT from offshore support vessel (OSV) owners is due to the reactivation of ships in layup. To facilitate this, Inmarsat introduced dual antenna solutions for OSVs so broadband communications can continue “if OSVs go into the shadow of drilling rigs or platforms” he added.
All this complements the steady growth in merchant shipping adopting VSAT. Euroconsult estimated that 2,550 terminals were installed in the first six months of this year, of which more than 1,500 were for Ka-band Fleet Xpress.
There is also growth in Ku-band VSAT installations, driven by vessel owners’ need for operational and crew welfare communications. Service provider Marlink is adding up to 150 new vessels to VSAT per month, said Marlink president of marine Tore Morten Olsen.
“It has become a mainstay to be on broadband with owners using communications to reduce operating expenses and recruit seafarers as better crew welfare becomes a differentiator,” he said.
Mr Olsen estimated that around 18,000 vessels have VSAT, and this will grow to 50,000 vessels in the next five years as VSAT is installed on merchant ships operating in Asia and smaller vessels. “Asia has been behind the curve, but large shipmanagers handling thousands of vessels are more interested in VSAT to be competitive,” he explained.
Another top VSAT service provider, KVH Industries, has seen a dramatic growth in installations. KVH co-founder and chief executive Martin Kits van Heyningen said year-on-year growth in Q4 2017 was 16%, but that had jumped to 60% in Q1 2018 and then 100% in Q2 2018, meaning it had doubled the number of VSAT shipments in April to June this year compared with the same period in 2017.
“We have ramped up manufacturing and installations substantially and have a backlog of orders, which creates its own issues,” he said. Mr Kits van Heyningen puts this down to introducing flexible AgilePlans for its mini-VSAT Broadband service late in 2017.
This is made possible through satellite owner Intelsat’s OneFlex service with KVH as the first signed-up partner. Intelsat vice president and general manager of mobility Mark Rasmussen said these flexible plans mean service providers can introduce different services and shorter contracts with “two virtual pipes that can be metered differently through one antenna.”
Intelsat’s high-throughput satellites allow providers such as KVH to supply bandwidth of 10 Mbps down to vessels and 3 Mbps upwards using smaller 60-cm or 80-cm diameter antennas, said Mr Rasmussen.
Rival operator, Telenor Satellite, has seen 165% growth in the number of vessels linked to its Thor 7 Ka-band service, partially because of the falling size of available antennas. “Our main success is in fisheries, ferries and offshore vessels,” said Telenor Satellite director of datacoms Jan Hetland.
“We have seen good monthly growth rates and in two years Ka-services have gone from zero to the same level as all our Ku-band,” he said. Mr Hetland predicts that workboats and tugs will be the next segment to install VSAT. “We see a change because of smaller antennas and lower prices that are opening these lower-end markets,” he said.
Demand for broadband from fishing vessels, workboats and OSVs is one of the reasons why Thuraya is preparing to introduce a VSAT service that combines Ku-band coverage with its own L-band coverage.
Thuraya maritime market development manager Ricky D’Souza said it is looking for partners to deliver these services. “We will offer flexible and short-term contracts for seasonal requirements for fishing and offshore vessels, which is especially important in Asia,” he said.
These are some of the key trends that will shape satellite communications in the next five years, as will introducing new applications for data transmissions.
End-user communications requirements
Ship managers and operators will use VSAT for improving fleet communications and efficiency.
V.Group is using satellite communications for its Fleet Cell of the Future, allowing fleet managers to have video conference calls to other fleet cells and ship masters. “We have developed more efficient ways of communicating,” said V.Group director of strategy, innovation and transformation Jon Key.
Satellite communications enables electronic documentation and data transmissions between these fleet cells and ships. “Increasing requirements for data means we expect higher bandwidth for uploading and downloading,” he explained.
“We are grappling with communications and collaborating with customers on hardware on vessels and on permissions for this data,” Mr Key said. “Many vessels do not have high tech communications so it is challenging to collect the data from ships.”
He said L-band services are fine for voice communications and some data transmissions, but some ships will need “to retrofit communications for the level of analysis that we are heading to.” Not all data will need to be sent to shore and some should remain available to crew on board.
He said communications was also required for more crew welfare services as “happier crew results in more productive vessels”. Broadband provides “access to social media and better communications with families,” Mr Key said.