Merchant ships will soon have connectivity equivalent or faster than many households if investment in satellites and mobile networks are realised
Merchant ships will soon have connectivity equivalent or faster than many households if investment in satellites and mobile networks are realised.
New-generation high-throughput satellites (HTS), low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations and 5G cellular networks will all interact as one network for many maritime sectors.
Maritime communications group Inmarsat surprised the market at the start of August revealing plans to diversify from its geostationary legacy and HTS to operate its own LEO constellation and 5G network for shipping in the Orchestra integrated network.
Inmarsat joins a growing number of companies investing in LEO to enable low-latency communications for different applications, potentially including autonomous ships.
It will take a few years to implement Orchestra, but in the meantime, bandwidth levels on board vessels are rising for crew welfare and fleet digitalisation solutions, driven by Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress and Ku-band VSAT, based on HTS geostationary satellites operated by Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and others.
Some cruise ships already have internet connectivity similar to small cities to accommodate the huge bandwidth required by thousands of passengers on board, with many using SES’ medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellation. Offshore support vessels regularly have internet speeds comparable to land-based communications.
For reference, a speed test to the computer I am writing this on in a medium-sized UK coastal town showed download speeds of 25.3 Mbps and upload speeds of 8.1 Mbps, which is sufficient for current requirements. Readers of this comment could be on far more, depending on their location and that of the nearest fibre optic cable.
However, merchant shipping is still far behind, with large disparities between the sectors and regions vessels operate in. Many ships in dry cargo sectors are still on around 500 kbps downlink and uplink. Most tankers and gas carriers will have more than 1 Mbps in both directions. But the growth in VSAT connections, estimated to be more than 30,000 vessels as of mid-2021, is pushing connectivity to 10 Mbps levels per ship.
A new generation of Global Xpress satellites and new Ku-band HTS units launching over the next three years will bring considerably more connectivity to owners willing to invest in faster services for crew.
New LEO services from OneWeb, Elon Musk’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper could provide low-latency VSAT within two years. But as Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout told Maritime Optimisation & Communications, these networks are not configured for maritime, which is why Inmarsat wanted to build its own at considerable expense.
When ships are close to coastlines and in ports, they can use 4G and long-term evolution and a growing number of 5G cellular networks. But outside this coverage it is back to satellite.
Therefore, investment in HTS, MEO and LEO constellations will bring huge benefits to shipping companies raising their game in crew welfare and implementing digitalisation for remote monitoring and fleet optimisation.
This faster connectivity will be vital as the maritime industry tackles enforced decarbonisation challenges, as integrated communications will be used for monitoring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions, optimising voyages and reducing fuel consumption.
Faster connectivity will be required for internet of things, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Owners, operators and managers will need these technologies to improve their carbon intensity indicator this decade and enable IMO to meet its aims to cut emissions.
Faster connectivity is coming in integrated networks of VSAT, LEO and 5G for the future prosperity of the maritime industry, in the face of environmental pressures and sustainability challenges.