Starlink Maritime on board – managing an independent installation

With Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite communications service now available for use by vessels at sea, dozens of merchant ship operators have installed the system to explore the potential benefits for their own operations. In this article, an Anonymous maritime IT industry professional recounts a real-life story of one such installation aboard a bulk carrier, detailing the purchase, set-up and performance of the service upon activation.

The Starlink Maritime service was first introduced by SpaceX in July 2022, with limited regional availability. In February of this year, having reached approximately 3,600 operational satellites, the company announced that it had achieved global coverage for shipping users on its network.

Working with a bulk carrier operator wishing to purchase and test the system independently of their satcom provider, I was tasked with managing the implementation of the service on one of its vessels.

While its satellite coverage may be ‘global’, the Starlink antennas required to use the service can currently only be purchased in certain countries. Greece, the traditional ‘home’ of shipping, is not one of them. It is possible to purchase and use antennas for terrestrial installation in Greece, as well as the RV version, which makes this contradiction all the more confusing.

Nevertheless, the equipment can be purchased for delivery in various countries. When buying direct from Starlink, a single antenna unit works out at around US$3,000. An additional fee of approximately US$180 is payable for a 25m extended cable, which will be necessary for many maritime users as the standard 8m cable will not meet the requirements of most bridge and navigational area layouts.

For our installation an ethernet adaptor was also required to provide hardwired connectivity to the unit and to reduce issues with ‘stray’ Wi-Fi connectivity. Other than the monthly airtime bill, there are no other applicable charges.

When buying direct from Starlink support is provided by email. This may seem shocking to those more used to traditional maritime communications and standard satcom support processes, however the speed with which emails were answered was found to be satisfactory in practice.

In one particular case, a question was asked and a response came within 3 hours, during ‘out of office’ hours in Europe. A further reply to that emailed response was sent, and within 2 minutes Starlink Support had contacted us by phone to clarify some points, advising that they wanted to help clear up the issue as quickly as possible.

Network integration

The biggest single issue in installing Starlink independently is integrating it with existing systems on board a ship. In the case of this bulk carrier, it was decided to use ‘off the shelf’ SD-WAN-style equipment. There are several options available in that regard, ranging in price from the high to the very low.

This installation used a low-cost TP-Link gateway and controller system, totalling less than US$300. To integrate the crew network, which had been built around Mikrotik equipment chosen by the existing satcom provider, a separate crew Mikrotik gateway was also implemented at a cost of less than US$100.

With this additional equipment installed we now had an onboard Gateway in place, with remote access, reporting and configuration, as well as crew Wi-Fi management and hotspot control.

The Gateway allows for up to four different WAN connections. This was configured to make Starlink the primary connectivity channel, with the existing onboard GEO satcom system as the secondary link and a third failover option of GSM. The existing satcom provider’s hardware box on the ship is now only used to control the GEO satcom connectivity, as a ‘passive’ connection.

Onboard network configuration

Commissioning and performance

The Starlink unit was commissioned while the vessel was in transit in international waters. An initial test was performed with the unit flat on the bridge wing, with download speeds of around 50-70Mbps recorded while the system was updating and tuning. Some disconnect sequences were experienced at this time, which were a result of initial power-on self-testing procedures and the tuning of the antenna and cable.

After installation, the antenna unit was left to finish its ‘tuning’ process and to carry out its blockage scan. During this phase bandwidth speeds exceeding 100Mbps were recorded, although dropouts were experienced due to the unit not knowing where its blockage areas were. These dropouts averaged around 15 seconds at a time and reduced in frequency within 12 hours.

Crew Wi-Fi access on the ship is now only permitted through the primary Starlink connection, managed by the Gateway. That access is offered as a free service, if used under agreed conditions, though this additional exposure to the internet does increase the risk for the owner in ensuring safe and legal use.

To ensure that the crew only browse sites that are deemed safe, both in terms of legality and to prevent trojans or infected servers transferring payloads to the vessel, a shore-based service provider was recruited for monitoring of both DNS queries and content. A reporting portal is also available alongside this service. The business network is secured with endpoint web monitoring as well as DNS and content filtering, along with a rules-based firewall to restrict access.

Pros and cons

With the Starlink system now operational on the bulk carrier there are some obvious benefits, as well as potential caveats.

One immediate impact was the improved functionality of Microsoft Office365 on the ship, which had been experiencing issues connecting with the licensing server using the previous GEO satcom system.

Earlier attempts to resolve this issue had been frustrating, with both the application provider and the satellite provider both part of an extended support chain, resulting in Office365 appearing as ‘unlicensed’ on the ship and reduced to limited functionality. The low latency of the Starlink system resolved this problem almost immediately, and also allowed for Two Factor Authentication to be introduced to further improve the cyber security posture on board.

In addition, firewalling and security of onboard IT systems can now follow best practices for terrestrial networks in updating and mitigation processes delivered by hardware providers, a far more mature technology infrastructure.

As an independently deployed service, domain, email and other related systems on board can now be migrated as needs dictate, and the airtime contract is also unrestricted, capable of being suspended at any time without cost, or incurring charges while suspended. Users can reactivate when they wish and pay the monthly charge as normal.

On the other side of the coin, it should be noted that Starlink is not yet licensed in every country, though existing satcom providers can also face issues with licensing in various territories. The system worked in international waters on the bulk carrier for this installation, which is where it is most needed. Closer to shore, the GSM fallback option can cover business data, and the existing GEO satcom service is still in place for use as required.

Overall, the results of this real-world implementation project showed that the new system performed exactly as expected. The crew are happy with the internet access they have been provided, and the vessel IT systems are all performing as they should be, with Windows updates and endpoint security system updates being undertaken in a timely manner.

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