Recently formed passenger vessel owner Brim sheds light on providing broadband on a limited budget to tourists in northern Norway
Environmental passenger shipowner Brim is challenged by the communications shortcomings in the Arctic for its new hybrid-electric vessels. Brim was founded to provide passengers a new way of viewing marine mammals in Norway’s far north, in fjords and open seas.
This unique vessel owner requires connectivity for these tourists, its crew and vessel operations. But so far it has been stretched by limited capacity and high connectivity prices.
Brim introduced its first ship Brim Explorer as a whale-watching vessel in Q4 2019. It was built at Maritime Partner shipyard in Ålesund, Norway, and provides tours from its home port of Tromsø, Norway.
This aluminium-hulled vessel can take up to 140 passengers on sustainable whale watching and sightseeing tours powered by a battery system supplied by Corvus Energy, a driveline by Servogear and system integration by Brunvoll Mar-El.
For its communications requirements, Brim provides access to coastal 4G networks used for mobile phone communications. But it is struggling with the limitations of 4G bandwidth capacity and coverage.
“As long as we are sailing close to shore in mainland Norway, the 4G solution provides a fairly stable and high-speed internet connection for both passengers and crew,” Brim chief financial officer and co-founder Espen Larsen-Hakkebo tells Riviera Maritime Media.
“But we are using a lot of gigabytes and we are struggling with high prices and a lack of will to tailor the pricing to our needs from Norwegian telecom providers.”
This could lead Brim to consider satellite communications for vessel connectivity. It will certainly need that for its second vessel, to be named Bard, as this will operate at even higher latitudes and remote locations away from 4G networks.
Bard will be stationed in Spitsbergen on the remote northern island of Svalbard as the first ultra-clean vessel specifically built to Polar regulations. It will operate in conjunction with the cruise and ferry operator Hurtigruten, allowing cruise passengers to visit waters that may be off limits to ships.
“For our second ship, we need a different communications setup to provide our passengers and crew with free and stable internet,” says Mr Larsen-Hakkebo.
“At the moment, we are in touch with OneWeb, a company building a global satellite communications network, to find a good solution for our emerging fleet of ships,” he says.
OneWeb is building a low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation for Ku-band VSAT maritime communications worldwide. It commissioned six satellites for trials in Q1 2019 and plans to launch 30 satellites per month during 2020. It intends to provide partial service in Q4 2020 and global coverage in 2021, delivering broadband speeds of 400 Mbps and an average latency of 32 milliseconds.
Brim has reviewed other satellite operators for its Arctic operations, but found they have their own challenges. “All other satellite-based systems are too expensive,” says Mr Larsen-Hakkebo, “and too limited to be of any use other than for emergency and high-priority communications.”
On Brim Explorer, a wifi network links passengers’ mobile devices to local 4G services. There are ultra-high frequency radio wave devices for onboard communications and VHF radio for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore operational communications.
“The setup we have on board our vessels is provided by our local marine radio and electronics provider, and the communications services is provided by Telenor,” says Mr Larsen-Hakkebo.
“Further offshore and in remote areas like Svalbard, the capabilities of 4G is limited by the service area, and in some of the areas where we will sail even the VHF has limited coverage,” he explains.
“In the next decade, with satellite communications becoming more available, we hope to be able to offer these services to our guests and crew at a more affordable prices,” he says.
Whatever the eventual solution, communications on these vessels needs to be reliable for operations, crew and passengers.
“The main benefits of our communications systems are twofold,” explains Mr Larsen-Hakkebo. “First, they contribute to the comfort on board the vessel, and allow live sharing and communications with friends and family for both crew and passengers.
“Second, communications systems are there to support us in case of emergency where the different systems overlap and ensure stable ways of calling for help, guidance and contact with emergency services.”
As Arctic tourism becomes more popular with cruise ship operators, the need for high-latitude communications will become more important.
Arctic communications solutions
Polar exploration cruise expeditions are becoming more popular and frequent, driving future demand for faster broadband and higher VSAT capacity in the Arctic.
OneWeb expects to offer global Ku-band VSAT from its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites by 2021. It has formed an understanding with Iridium, which already operates a LEO constellation with 66 satellites orbiting worldwide including over the poles. This could lead to them offering a Ku-band/L-band combined package with associated terminal and connectivity.
Telenor operates satellites with high latitude coverage, its latest being Thor 7 with its Ka-band VSAT connectivity for vessels. It is offering high-speed broadband through its Anker services.
Inmarsat intends to offer Ka-band communications in the Arctic from 2022 after two Global Xpress payloads (GX10a and GX10b) are commissioned. These will be on board Space Norway’s Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission satellites that will be launched into highly elliptical orbits.
Other Ku-band VSAT coverage is also available across regions in the Arctic. Ships using the northern sea route across northern Russia can use Ku-band communications from Russian satellites through service providers such as Orange Business Services.