The ever demanding superyacht owner is always looking for more. But how are the VSAT providers delivering on this promise?
In an increasingly changing world of satellite communication, the technology and the companies that provide it ensure that the subject of superyacht VSAT is changing just as fast. Where it as simple as new technology simply bringing faster speed, then VSAT could be thought as a sort of superyacht consumable commodity the likes of, for example, fuel oil. Here captains look at the bunker price per ton, evaluate the quality of the supplier, and make a simple, uncomplicated transaction
Article by Frances and Michael Howorth
The ever demanding superyacht owner is always looking for more. But how are the VSAT providers delivering on this promise?
to buy as many tonnes of the good stuff as will fill the tanks. That is easy. But sadly, VSAT is not.
It is not just the price of bandwidth, nor is it the speed of download. It is not even just the equipment that delivers it or the service provider that makes it all happen that are changing. No, in the case of VSAT it is all of this and more. “More?” I hear you say… Yes, more because the changing equally fast!
The VSAT maritime market has more than tripled in size over the past two years. Corporate consolidation has seen smaller suppliers of services and equipment swallowed up, so that now, only big boys play ball. But, has this meant we are receiving a better service or faster speeds or more choice?
One welcome change is that of cost. Prices have dropped tremendously in the past year or so. “Now yachts can get VSAT connectivity for less than 1000€ a month,” says Antoine Perry, founder and director of SeaSatCom. But, he adds, “As always people are selling things they do not really know and as it is a very complex world, clients can listen to a lot of silly things because they do not understand what you are talking of. There is a lack in education, I see it every day when I discuss with captains or owners and the fact that I use layman’s terms considerably changes the paradigm.”
Pippa Nicholas, the Technical Director at and the Owner of Yacht Projects agrees. “Educating superyacht crew about the intricacies surrounding VSAT seems to be an almost never ending story. I suspect that every five years or so the next generation of captains and decision makers comes to the forefront. In the 5 years that they have taken to get into that position there has been an exponential growth in VSAT technology.” Almost every customer I meet is confused by what they have read or been told by less scrupulous salesmen, who like to baffle them with terminology such as MIR and CIR, Bandwidth and Contention. It is important that those buying from VSAT suppliers understand the terminology because otherwise they cannot make informed decisions.
MIR stands for Maximum Information Rate and is sometimes also called BURST speed. In a contract this is usually shown numerically the likes of 4Mbps down or often 4096 Kbps. CIR stands for Committed Information Rate. This is the Guaranteed bandwidth or speed of information delivery that the user is going to experience. In the contract it’s usually shown as 1Mbps down or can be written as 1024Kbps. It should not be confused with Bandwidth which is what we all determine as ‘internet speed’ of service or how ‘fast’ the connection is. Then there is Contention Ratio. This is the number of other vessels, the supplier has sold the MIR to, and you as a customer will have to share the MIR with. In other words, in the example above where you have an MIR of 4Mbps and CIR of 1Mbps the contention ration will be 4:1 meaning you as a customer will share the bandwidth between 4 vessels.
Understanding these terms makes comparing estimates easier. But Pippa warns, “Buyer beware! The terms used and the way they are used are often misleading. It is really important that the buyer understands what he is getting for his money.” She gives examples of this by telling me: “There are rogue traders, for example, who when selling MIR simply omit the fact that there is a CIR attached to the deal.” She continues,“My company, Yacht Projects, prefers to sell MIR to yachts. This means the yacht gets a CIR, or contention ratio of 1:1. This means that when you compare our 4Mbps to a contended bandwidth offering you will find that we cost about the same but offer 4 times the speed.” She adds, “We are of course able to supply contended bandwidth should a yacht want it, but I have to wonder why you would you want to! I consistently find our contended bandwidth is around one third of the cost of that of our competitors.”
Yacht owners want more and more coverage. They want faster speeds to get the same quality as they at home or in their shore-based offices. They expect the same services such as the ability to stream Netflix, Apple TV and other entertainment channels. AST (Applied Satellite Technology) serves the superyacht industry by offering high-capacity connectivity services & solutions and understands the yacht market. The company was chosen to be the official satellite communications supplier to the most edition of the Clipper Round the World Race. Speaking for AST, Evan Thomas comments, “Owners are often particularly concerned with download speeds and availability of the satellite services. It’s important that they are connected wherever they are, so we take the time to understand what devices are used on¬board. We help them calculate the impact of their data use to make sure they have the right connection to suit their needs. Furthermore, we offer in-depth visibility and control of the networks and data used by the vessel via our INTEGRA services putting the control in the owner/captain’s hand via our easy-to-use My AST Portal.”
Growth in demand for VSAT
In continuing to deliver the latest technology and provide the satellite industry with the most competitive value in the market, Global Satellite has brought satellite communication down to earth. Martin Fierstone, the company’s CEO & President, says, “Satellite communication touches our lives in ways most people don’t fully appreciate. From GPS to satellite TV to the communication networks that make modern economic, military and political affairs possible, there are few areas of life that the rise of SATCOM technology has not shaped in some way, directly or indirectly. While visions of massive arrays and constellations might be the first thing that comes to mind when some people think of satellites, today we’re going to focus on something a little less visually impressive but just as important; the Very Small Aperture Terminal, or ‘VSAT’.”
In their newly-published 2020 Superyacht Connectivity Report detailing the responses from captains, crew, engineers and technical officers, Inmarsat revealed an increasing reliance on VSAT connectivity. Usage and spend forecast is expected to grow significantly in the next five years. Both operational and leisure use are driving demand, with the research showing a need for connectivity for regulation compliance and navigation, for fuel optimisation, efficiency and reduced environmental impact. The strong demand for trusted global communications for guest and crew use is also apparent, particularly for TV over internet protocol (IP) streaming onboard and internet access, in line with the need to meet crew welfare needs, a concern which became even more critical during this year’s COVID-19 pandemic. As the risk of cyber-attacks continues to rise in line with growing digitalisation, the responses from professionals indicate that further work is needed to improve awareness about the most effective on-board cyber security solutions, such as Fleet Secure Endpoint, and to assist the implementation of measures ensuring superyachts comply with new 2021 IMO regulations on cyber security.
Yet while technology has grown exponentially, yachts have not always stayed up to date. Recently, Yacht Projects attended a 51 metre yacht that carries 10 crew and 10 guests and found over 120 devices had been connected to the onboard network. 10 of these were Apple TV. Pippa Nicholas told us; “The owner had been told they would work fine. He didn’t question it as he had been told he had internet on board. At home the owner has a fibre optic multi gigabyte connection yet his family of four had 50 devices connected to it. Yet because he and his captain had not researched the matter carefully enough or stayed up to date with technology, his expectation was, that because he had Internet on board it was going to work like it did at home. Yachts of this size do not carry dedicated ETOs and the onboard techie is often just a geeky decky or an overworked engineer who have seen coping with the internet added to their already overloaded job description.”
Just because you understand how to use an Excel spreadsheet or understand how Windows 10 supports the system, does not mean you can handle on board satellite communications. Yachts are often better served by companies that offer to do all the work remotely. Yacht Projects do this effectively and safely for their airtime contract holding customers offering a hand holding exercise at no extra cost. They do so, using a SEaWall firewall installed by them and ensure that the main users and the yacht’s owner have their expectations of the system met at all times. There are other providers who offer similar aspects of the overall solution but there are only a few who offer the complete solution from design, through to implementation and installation. In the case of Yacht Projects, the buck stops with Pippa. She says, “All parties involved have my email and telephone numbers and can contact me at any time.”
Aside of the service providers, equipment technology is moving just as fast. For yachts that do not venture far offshore 4G, 4G+, and now 5G offer similar service at sea up to 10 nautical miles offshore.
Satellite tracking antennas are getting smaller and more efficient. Flat panel arrays from the likes of Kymeta and phase array technology from Phasor, are catching on slowly but it would be very wrong to write off the dome. Based in South Korea, Intellian make and distribute satellite antennae housed inside domes. From their perspective, superyacht connectivity has two fundamental requirements: aesthetics and seamlessness. The first, they say, “Is easily dealt with, and Intellian can deliver most of its satellite television antennas with domes to match its leading NX Series VSAT communications terminals.”
The latter is more of a challenge. For superyachts, seamless connectivity means that a user at sea should have the same experience that they do on shore, namely swift service with plenty of bandwidth to handle multiple demands, with no interruptions. It is in this area that Intellian has focused much of its recent innovation. The NX Series antennas, which range in size from 60cm to 1.5m, are able to track GEO, MEO and LEO satellites and may be easily be converted between Ku and Ka band operation.
Multi-orbit operability means that the NX antennas are truly future-proofed. LEO and MEO networks are set to proliferate in the next few years: OneWeb will begin operation in 2021/2022, and major players such as Amazon, Facebook and Google are actively developing LEO technology.
The benefits to superyachts are considerable – LEO/MEO networks offer global coverage and minimal latency, meaning that connections at sea will be as swift as they are on shore. In addition, the amount of infrastructure being proposed will mean that there is plenty of bandwidth to support high
demand usage such as gaming, video streaming, 8K TV, onboard cinema and social media, as well as office applications. Superyachts fitted with NX Series antennas are ready to take advantage of these networks from day one.
Another aspect of the NX Series which facilitates seamlessness, especially for LEO/ MEO networks, is the built-in mediator in the Below Deck Unit (BDU). The mediator enables automatic management of dual antennas, so that as one satellite heads below the horizon, the second has already picked up a new one, allowing an uninterrupted switch. Use of dual antennas also guards against blockage by vessel infrastructure, as one antenna will always have a clear view of a satellite.
Bandwidth demand is increasing, regardless of the user group, and with much of the world’s business – both social and economic – moving online, connectivity has shifted from being a luxury to a necessity. Intellian expect the upcoming LEO and MEO networks to bring rapid growth in maritime satellite communications, and we’re ready for it.
Global, mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat Maritime is the only satellite operator to operate in both L-band and Ka-band. As such, it is able to guarantee service levels globally by owning and managing the whole network from end to end, with 100 per cent control over cyber security. This end to end solution is key to deliver safe and secure connections, and this is what owners want.
Telemar Yachting Americas is now part of the Marlink Group a true giant in the global field of SatComs. David Gratton, the Business Development Manager, is based in the company offices in Fort Lauderdale. A spin off from Telemar, whose headquarters are in Viareggio, Italy, it has been in business for 70 years. David says, “The company are global specialists in service, supply, and installation of navigation, communication, automation, integrated bridge/glass bridge systems. They are also an official Accounting Authority (IU03) and provider of managed communications solutions for VSAT, Inmarsat (Sat C, Fleet, etc.), Iridium, Terrestrial, etc. Other services: Radio Surveys, Gyro maintenance, shore-based maintenance contracts, LRIT testing, BNWAS.”
Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress high-speed internet service continues to grow rapidly and is now installed on almost 10,000 vessels. Mark Warner, the Marketing and PR Director at Inmarsat says, “It stands out because it is a service and a complete solution, not just a bandwidth. Delivering high data speeds via Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) Ka-band service, combined with the proven reliability of Inmarsat’s FleetBroadband (FB) L-band service, it is designed for global maritime coverage, with future-looking capabilities.”
Fleet Xpress for superyachts offers affordable voice calls, multiple voice options for crew and operations, and high-speed broadband for internet access, plus 24/7 online support by certified engineers. Owners and operators can take advantage of a range of other factors including controlled costs, flexible subscriptions, unparalleled global coverage, unlimited FB back-up, lightweight and compact antennas, and multi-layered security.
Ensuring continuous connectivity, the GX service is delivered via Ka spot beams, with more than 72 beams per GX satellite and 50 Mbps per beam. Designed to be global with consistent spot beam configuration and automatic make before break handover, the narrow and sharp spot beams have a uniform signal across each beam, so vessels get the same signal everywhere.
This means FX antennas can be compact and lightweight, enabling significant antenna load reductions. This advantage was highlighted when the sailing yacht Ganesha reduced her antenna load by 230 kilogrammes by fitting a dual FX-60 system. Demand was met and enabled users to enjoy movies, browse the internet and run apps.
FX users need not worry about ‘bill shock’, with flexible subscriptions allowing data rates to increase or decrease depending on the data speed needed, with voice traffic routed separately without using data plan capacity. As well as benefiting from controlled costs and guaranteed service levels, owners can often enjoy MIR speeds, given the company practice of allocating abundant satellite capacity to service this requirement.
Meeting the demands of the superyacht fleet in a new era of digitalisation and yachting freedom, Inmarsat has scheduled an extensive satellite launch plan up to 2023 to ensure a future-proof network offering global capabilities, including Arctic coverage, to further augment the world’s best portfolio of satellite networks.
In December 2020, Inmarsat confirmed commercial service introduction (CSI) of GX5, the company’s newest, most powerful geostationary satellite to date. Launched in November 2019, GX5 is the fourteenth satellite currently in service and provides additional capacity to Europe and the Middle East. The satellite delivers approximately double the combined capacity of the entire existing GX fleet (GX1-GX4). Together with a significantly expanded ground station network and enhanced cloud-based processing, GX5 supplements the global coverage of GX and supports the rapid growth in customer demand for GX services in the region, particularly for the marine leisure sector and other maritime sectors. The first of the Inmarsat-6 satellites (GX6A) is scheduled to launch by the end of 2021, with the second (GX6B) due to launch early in 2022 – both entering commercial service in 2022.
A further three satellites (GX7-9) will launch by the end of 2023, while two more (GX10A and GX10B) are due for launch in 2022. This means the network will provide coverage to destinations like the Galapagos, Polynesia, and the Antarctic, extending to 76 degrees North and South of the equator.
Response to COVID-19
In the months after the start of the pandemic, there was an acceleration in the increase in enquiries from the superyacht market, asking specifically about reliable connectivity and global coverage. This follows a number of satellite operators and service providers entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which resulted in an impact for the end-users and in some cases service disruption. The expectation is that there will continue to be an increase in data usage onboard driven by crew and application usage and also the need to use services such as video conferencing.
In terms of the entire maritime business, Inmarsat has seen an overall increase in demand for satellite connectivity. For example, the average vessel, including superyachts, using its high-speed service increased its daily download data from 4 GB to 6 GB in the space of three months April 2020 to June 2020 driven by crew usage and the increased use of digital applications.
As the pandemic unfolded, Inmarsat worked closely with ISWAN (International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network) and maritime charities to offer free and discounted services. Inmarsat offered crew access to ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp portal and live chat function via Fleet Hotspot, and also offered free voice phone calls to the service. It provided a voice call discount offer to its retail customers using FleetBroadband ChatCard voice services and to wholesale partners offering FleetBroadband voice calls under the legacy Crew Calling ‘SQT’ brand.
At the beginning of April, Inmarsat joined with VIKAND and software platform provider FrontM to provide a free COVID-19 video call service with a trained health professional. The new service ensures that users of Fleet Xpress service had and continue to have 24/7 access to video call VIKAND’s expert staff for information to help navigate COVID-19 related, medical questions. By facilitating access to timely information for superyachts, onboard uncertainty is reduced, decisions are more informed, and actions can be taken faster by those onboard to help mitigate and resolve risks.
“Cybersecurity is always going to be an issue,” says Antoine Perry, founder and director of SeaSatCom. He adds, “It is already a subject when you use a VSAT as you go through the NOC (Network Operating Centre) of the LES Operator which has security into the server you use to go on internet. Combatting Cyber-security, Evan Thomas says, “AST provides a shoreside MPLS network with Intrusion prevention systems in-built adding a further layer of protection to the on-board firewall, this helps mitigate the risk against incoming cyber-attacks to the vessel from the external internet, couple this with effective end¬point control on-board and the main limiting factor becomes the human element, whilst this cannot be controlled training and re¬training on this subject for captains, crew, owners and guests is essential.”
Time is not about to stand still and the changes in VSAT technology and use requirements for superyachts will continue apace. In the coming months, Inmarsat forecasts a greater need for superyacht professionals to understand cyber risks onboard and ensure adequate steps are in place to comply with the Cyber Security Requirements for IMO 2021.
Be under no illusion, if you do not take appropriate measures, you will just become an easy target for the cyber bandits!