What’s new? What’s hot? What’s next? ONBOARD looks into the ever changing world of VSAT Communications
In an ever 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 sort of yachting consumable commodity the like fuel for example. Here Captains look at the bunker price per ton, evaluate the quality of the supplier, and make a simple, uncomplicated transaction to buy as many tonnes 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 we hear you say? Yes, more because the expectations of superyacht owners and crew are changing equally as fast!
The VSAT maritime market has more than tripled in size over the past two or three years. Corporate consolidation has seen smaller suppliers of services and equipment swallowed up, so that now, only big boys play ball.
So when a company is asked to quote for a yacht, what are the initial questions they should be asking the Captain or Yacht Managers? We asked Julian drudge, Sales Director at Telenor Satellite this exact question. He explains, “When approached by a new client, there are a number of things we need to ascertain in order to give the best advice. The most important information for us is firstly to find out what applications the owner wants to run over the satellite link. These might include downloading movies, live streaming of sports, video conferencing or simple internet browsing and VoIP calls, together with specific applications that are key to the operation of the vessel or as required by the owner. This knowledge, along with the number of concurrent users and details of the networks installed on the vessel, help us to calculate the approximate bandwidth requirements, and decide if a dedicated WAN optimisation solution is required to make the most efficient use of the bandwidth provided.”
“Of course, that is just the beginning, Julian says. “ We also need to know not only where the vessel is currently located, but perhaps even more importantly, the intended geographical area of operation. This will enable us to decide which Ku or Ka band service we want to recommend for the vessel, and the size of antennas to be installed.
In addition we would also ask what equipment is already installed on-board the vessel and if the crew has any existing experience of operating VSAT systems. Lastly, the size and design of the vessel is important to help us determine the number and size of antennas that would suit it, and to identify any possible beam blockage issues.”
Sara Hextall, Director at OceanWeb concurs, “Our questions are tailored to investigate whether the vessels current hardware is fit for the data requirements of the size of the vessel, the number of devices and itinerary of the vessel. What size is the yacht, the number of crew, the number of guests? Do they have an ETO? Other questions on our list would include; What 4G equipment do they they onboard? Do they have a gateway on board to manage the off-vessel connections?”
The size of the yacht will a lot of the time dictate the number of guests and crew, so you can try to ascertain the quantity of devices and data that might be required, but as Pippa explains, this is not always the case. “Recently, Yacht Projects attended a 51 metre yacht that carries 10 crew and 10 guests and we 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. 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 deckie or an overworked engineer who volunteer (or not) to help with any computer and IT based issues.
So what’s on offer within the portfolios of these companies? Sara Hextall elaborates, “We offer a blended approach to the problem of increasing demand for the quality and speed of data encompassing VSAT, 4G and technical support. Our flexible VSAT contracts allow for short-term high-speed increases for when bandwidth requirements are high. VSAT is still essential as a solid back up for when 4G and 5G networks are over saturated or unavailable i.e. off-shore. VSAT airtime is also provided with an SLA, guaranteeing a certain level of service. There are no SLA’s provided by the cellular networks for a 4G service as you get what is available. However, when available, 4G would be our preference for guests as it has high speeds and low latency offering a more satisfying user experience.”
This question of 4G and 5G was backed up by Simon Pearce, as specialist in communication for the superyacht sector, he reminds “5G is being talked about as though it’s commonly available, but the reality is that right now, around the world, terrestrial 5G networks are at various stages of implementation and little, if anything, is currently available at sea.”
Sara continues “Our 4G amplification solutions allow 4G routers to connect to multiple network towers and operators up to 30km offshore and allows us to spread the bandwidth load over the different providers to achieve maximum throughput.”
It’s true from our research that the right solution can only be presented when it is determined where the vessel will operate and the general size of band width is determined. Julian Crudge continues, “There are any number of types of service we can offer within our Anker Managed Services portfolio. Telenor Satellite can offer solutions on both Ku and Ka band, but these can be delivered in a variety of ways. In terms of geography, we would generally advise Ku band for vessels that will regularly be travelling beyond Europe, for example into the Caribbean or the Middle East, but for those planning to remain in Europe, Ka band is the best all round solution, what is more, our Anker Ka Managed service performs very well even with relatively small (60cm) antennas and so is a great option for smaller vessels.”
But how is band width managed or predicted during a season? Julian points out “we are very aware that they can change from week to week, sometimes even day to day, and we provide a very flexible service that can be ramped up or downgraded, on demand with a minimum term of 3 days, through our on-line portal, called the Bridge, at any time of day. This portal operates seamlessly with our VSAT hub and other systems, minimising potential delays.”
As with anything even slightly technical on board the yacht, being proactive and managing expectation is of vital importance. Sara back this up, “An essential part of delivering good bandwidth is to be able to proactively manage and support the off-vessel connections, gateway, network and ultimately devices. This is where our Support Plans really come into play. We can proactively administer the hardware and airtime in order to deliver maximum bandwidth where it is needed.”
Of course another major question the Captain, Yacht Managers or even owners might have is what about this term ‘future proofing’, is this really possible or will todays equipment be redundant in three years time?
We asked Matthew Humphreys, EMEA Sales Director at Intellian for his views on this matter. “In the coming months and years will see new LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and MEO (Medium Earth Orbit) VSAT satellite networks come into operation, with pole-to-pole coverage bringing high-speed connectivity to areas previously impossible to reach. For this reason, it is essential that any satcoms solution for adventure cruising can support multiple orbits and bands.
Our NX series antennas work across GEO, MEO and LEO networks, and can be easily modified between the Ku and Ka bands to suit your network of choice. Because LEO and MEO satellites are constantly moving relative to the antenna, dual VSAT antennas are required to ensure continuous connectivity – while one antenna is tracking the satellite in use, the other can seek out the next one ready for handover.”
So can you really have uninterrupted connectivity while cruising the world’s ocean? Humphreys says “We always recommend that the user installs the largest antenna size for their budget. A larger antenna will not only provide you with wider geographical coverage and higher bandwidth capabilities, it will also reduce your airtime costs. A larger antenna can utilise more of the signal that it is working with therefore reducing costs and increasing the potential for higher data speeds.”
So we asked Humphreys what he’d recommend to the owner of nice big shinny superyacht coming out of the yard, “Typical installations on the world’s largest superyachts use our 2.4m multiband antennas. These offer exceptional performance and are able to track and switch between Ku band, Ka band and C band automatically with the capability to track Geo and Non-Geo satellite constellations. These are fully future proof with an incredible level of flexibility. The 2.4m and NX Series antenna systems have the ability to seamlessly switch between dual antennas built in, helping to ensure that the link is not interrupted if the satellite is shadowed by the vessel’s superstructure. For optimum connectivity, we can also offer our proprietary Intelligent Mediator, which can switch and manage up to eight antennas and eight modems, all on different networks, providing the industry’s highest level of performance and redundancy.
There it is again, that phrase ‘future proofing’, but we’re not just talking about 10 years from now, we’re also talking about the cruising itinerary of the yacht, the most common example being the yacht moving form the mediterranean to the Caribbean to catch both seasons. Sara says “Communication is key”, she continues “Our engineers are in constant contact with our clients to ensure that they can prepare for any changes in bandwidth requirements in good time. We can deliver a great VSAT service in either the Med or the Caribbean with multiple beams covering both charter areas and more importantly have up to 5 beans covering the Atlantic crossing. 4G/5G infrastructure is available in the Caribbean but tends to be more disparate so requires even more planning and communication. We can also deliver global VSAT solutions.
Echoing Humphreys’ comments the next generation of satellites and networks, Sara says “With the dawning of the LEO and MEO developments that are also on the horizon for VSAT, all the equipment we supply is fully future proof and upgradable in order to take advantage of these new services with higher speeds and lower latency.”
As of the 1 January 2021, the IMO brought in legislation for yachts over 500GT and those with more than 12 passengers that they must incorporate cyber risk management into their safety managements systems. So what are the solutions for this is a more general terms?
Sara from OceanWeb expands on this subject “We understand and appreciate that most owners and guests are very keen on the highest levels of privacy and security whilst staying on board the yacht. In addition to this the smooth running and operation of the vessel relies on secure systems onboard. All our IT systems have been designed with this in mind and we have the expertise to provide logical, practical and bespoke solutions. We understand for the senior crew and Management companies, compliance is paramount, so we offer a complete cyber risk management service that will ensure vessels can maintain full compliance with IMO Resolution MSC.428(98). Our cybersecurity services are aligned with internationally recognised best practice frameworks including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Centre for Internet Security (CIS).”
With each client and yacht having very specific differences, its important to offer a broad portfolio of services in this area and at Telenor Satellite, Julian confirms this, “We work in close partnership with our resellers to match the security requirements of our clients. A lot depends on what firewalls they have, how they have set up their network, what traffic they want to block etc. From our end, we monitor all the internet traffic in and out of our teleport at the same time as supporting our partners as they provide enhanced security such as AES encryption.”
In summary, time is not about to stand still and the changes in VSAT technology and use requirements for superyachts will continue at a very fast pace. In the coming months and years, those in the know, forecasts a greater need for superyacht professionals to understand cyber risks onboard and ensure adequate steps are in place to comply. There will also continue to be demand for new applications onboard and this will range from navigation and weather apps to telemedicine and entertainment apps.
Keep ahead of the game, do your research and talk to the professionals. Discuss the options with your peers, find out what their experiences are with different suppliers and operators. Over and out!