Data transfer bottlenecks are holding shipping back, and satellite operators could win big if they invest in the infrastructure shipping needs to move forward
Data transfer bottlenecks are holding shipping back, and satellite operators could win big if they invest in the infrastructure shipping needs to move forward.
The benefits of faster data transfer speeds are as plentiful as they are obvious, and I maintain that the key financial benefit for shipowners and operators stems from the fact that faster data transfers allow them to deploy – and properly leverage – internet of things (IoT) technologies on board their vessels.
Real-time remote monitoring, diagnostics and analysis of onboard systems saves on costs and downtime and offers the potential to improve vessel maintenance and maintain crew safety.
When used well, the cost savings from IoT technologies should mount up, over time, to improve owner margins and enable operators to become more competitive.
But there exist, within the current maritime satellite broadband market, barriers to the uptake of this technology.
The costs of delivering broadband to ships is one.
The average cost of broadband at sea is around US$1,000 per month – roughly 10-times the price the average household pays, a concern for shipowners looking to minimise operating expenses in difficult market circumstances.
In competitive markets with low charter rates, high capital outgoings and ever-increasing regulation, every penny matters, and high prices often lead owners to skimp on bandwidth.
Naturally, as technology improves, bandwidth is growing and costs are shrinking, but progress is slow in the maritime sector and there remain limitations on data packages and transmission rates.
Bandwidth’s slow growth is, frankly, not keeping pace with the demand for it. Bandwidth cannot all go to vessel monitoring, of course, and competition for the limited bits and bytes includes crew communication with family and friends ashore, operational information transmissions (such as weather forecasts, hazard notices, electronic chart updates, charterer and port information) and bandwidth required for crew welfare services.
With IoT data competing with all of these demands, shipowners are no doubt faced with difficult financial decisions that serve to limit IoT uptake further.
Satellite communications companies, too, are slowly reducing prices and increasing bandwidth through more satellite investment, but again the price drops and bandwidth jumps are just not happening quickly enough to dramatically increase IoT deployments.
Another barrier to the uptake of IoT is the latency that satellite voice and data transmissions encounter.
Most of us will have first-hand experience with a delay on a phone call or video call. This comes from the time microwaves and radio waves used to transmit data take to travel from the phone or other device to the transmitter, up to the satellite and back down to the receiver and the person on the other end of the call.
This is latency, and it is a stubborn law of physics that is not easy to overcome. It does not pose a problem for applications that only need to send and receive data in packages, but it does pose a problem for data-streaming services including the real-time monitoring and control that many IoT applications offer.
The closer satellites are to the Earth, the less latency there is in satellite communications, and the desire to minimise latency has been an investment driver for SES’ medium Earth orbit satellites and Iridium’s low Earth orbit satellite constellations, notably.
In spite of the progress, many vessel owners I’ve spoken to on the subject still regard latency as a problematic technical barrier that satellite operators need to tackle before they will be willing to invest in real-time monitoring.
Another issue on the minds of many vessel owners that stymies uptake of IoT is the risk of communication outages that can lead to loss of data. The outages can come from ships operating at the edge of satellite beams or close to objects that create shadows in signal, and vessel owners highlight this as an ongoing problem for their reliable communications.
Redundancy in satellite coverage and dual-antenna solutions would go some way towards mitigating the risk of outages, but it seems many vessel owners want greater certainty of uptime before they spend their cash on real-time data transmissions and remote monitoring applications.
IoT has the potential to transform maritime operations and help shipowners reduce their operating expenses. Real-time data monitoring and analysis enables owners to conduct condition-based maintenance strategies, reducing the maintenance requirements of their onboard systems. It can improve decision-making, optimising routes, and managing engine operations to reduce fuel consumption.
IoT offers all of these economic and operational benefits, but IoT will only see greater uptake in shipping if data can be transferred reliably, safely and in a timely and cost-effective manner.
If satellite communications companies up their game on infrastructure, bandwidth and transmission speed, shipowner dollars – and widespread IoT – are bound to follow.