1000 times faster in 20 years – the maritime bandwidth revolution

Satellite communications antennas connecting vessels to the global internet at the Aussaguel land earth station

Twenty years ago, in 2004, Inmarsat generated huge excitement in maritime satcom circles with an announcement that it would make a massive update to its Fleet 77 service the following year – a move that would allow 128 kbps data communications from ship to shore on a single L-band channel for the first time.

This was big news for the service, which up to that point had maxed out at 64 kbps for a single ISDN line. Those of a similar vintage to this author who were part of the industry in 2005 may still remember the triumphant ‘Full Speed Ahead to 128k’ advertising tagline and accompanying Engine Order Telegraph marketing graphics heralding this new era in communications at various industry events.

Fast forward to today and the scene is extraordinarily different. Data speeds more than one thousand times faster than that Fleet 77 breakthrough, of 128 Mbps and beyond, are increasingly becoming an expectation for vessels as they consider their options from amongst the latest generation of connectivity services.

While the laws of physics might make such speeds impractical on L-band, Ku-band VSAT services from geostationary (GEO) satellites have already been implemented that have exceeded the 100 Mbps barrier, while low earth orbit (LEO) networks like Elon Musk’s Starlink and Eutelsat’s OneWeb have also demonstrated triple-digit megabit per second speeds.

On the Ka-band side, Inmarsat’s newly announced next generation product line includes plans to integrate capacity from parent company Viasat’s latest satellites following their upcoming scheduled launches, with mobility tests of that Viasat-3 network on an aircraft earlier this year demonstrating 240 Mbps speeds.

As we move into the second half of the decade, shipping companies can begin to design operational processes that can advantage of a connectivity environment that is one thousand times better than it was twenty years ago – a time when, in some cases, many of their current working practices in vessel operations may have been introduced.

Hybrid networks, combining different satellite products alongside 5G and safety services, will become more commonplace, offering high bandwidth speeds and failover/redundancy options so that technology processes can rely upon link availability. At the same time, data management services will increase in importance as terabytes of data flow between ship and shore, in some cases to vessels built before the invention of the iPhone.

To further explore the impact of some of these seismic changes in the maritime connectivity landscape, Smart Maritime Network paid a visit to one of the facilities underpinning the industry’s global communications infrastructure, a land earth station located in Aussaguel in southern France operated by Marlink.

The Aussaguel station features a range of massive antennas for vessel VSAT traffic on various Ku-band satellite networks, as well as a dedicated Inmarsat Fleet Xpress antenna for sending and receiving Ka-band signals.

In addition to its land earth station duties, the site operates as a communications testing facility, with live end user terminals for various GEO and LEO satellite systems, as well as 4G and 5G antennas, all being put through their paces to determine how they can best be deployed to reliably deliver connectivity to ships at sea.

As satellite network capabilities have expanded and onboard bandwidth speeds multiplied, technicians at this station have seen a shift in priorities away from compression and network control to data and application optimisation – evidenced by the fact that the existing 1 Gbps data line running out of Aussaguel was upgraded to 10 Gbps in recent years, and is already approaching capacity.

“The products that we were developing 10 years ago were really focused on reducing the bandwidth usage as much as possible to make sure that every byte going across the line was really necessary. Now we see more and more of the opposite situation – people want to open up the pipe and be able to use the capacity to allow the vessel to really become a remote office rather than an isolated ship at sea,” said Charles Chateau, Director of Product Development at Marlink.

“Bandwidth constraints have not been completely removed, of course. This constraint is still there because maybe you have high bandwidth systems on board, but they might fail or will not be available from time to time. So, you still need to be able to fall back to other satellite connectivity, maybe MSS (L-band) connectivity, and you still need products that are able to cope with that.”

“Users expect that you have a standard remote office experience like with you have with a fibre connection, but you still need to be able to have products that can work with low bandwidth or high latency. So, we still work on the basis that we need to take that into consideration and incorporate solutions that are still able to cope with those constraints while also including tools that can take advantage of high-speed connectivity.”

(l-r) Marlink’s Luc Feron, Director Customer Care and Aussaguel Site Manager; Matthieu Veber, VP of Engineering and Operations; and Charles Chateau, Director of Product Development

According to the Marlink team, maritime users are increasingly exploiting their new communications capabilities to introduce terrestrial-focused applications that would have been unsuitable to deploy in a vessel environment in the past, opening up a range of possibilities to innovate in managing operations.

“You can start to look at almost any application you would see in the terrestrial market, relating to things like IT and OT. Then you have new opportunities for crew welfare, where crew are now actually beginning to demand internet access like they have at home while they are at sea,” said Matthieu Veber, VP of Engineering and Operations at Marlink.

“It will reach the stage where you won’t get anybody to work on board if they don’t get proper internet access. And every one of us knows, once you have connectivity and it suddenly breaks while you’re watching a movie or your team is about to score, you just get people mad.”

“Once the expectation has been created, you need to provide a reliable system otherwise you create even bigger frustration if it fails. People quickly forget that they didn’t have this kind of service just a short time ago. So that’s why a guaranteed level of service is important.”

Remote access to shipboard machinery for maintenance and optimisation is also on the increase as costs and capabilities align to make direct IoT connectivity to a variety of different systems a practical option.

“In these kinds of remote environments, you need the knowledge, but you don’t necessarily need physical intervention anymore. We are already able to collect a lot of data and shipping companies are using this data to do various things, but particularly to save fuel,” Mr Chateau said.

“This will be extended with more remote access to the onboard systems, powering things like preventive maintenance, because you have a lot more information to make predictions in advance that something may happen and anticipate issues. We are working hard on delivering products to support secure remote access to onboard systems.”

While the introduction of hybrid onboard networks has facilitated an enormous uptick in available bandwidth, the complexity of the onboard infrastructure has also increased, requiring intelligent tools to manage and optimise the links available so that the end user can take advantage of a reliable high-speed link, no matter the underlying carrier.

“Hybrid connectivity, it’s nothing new for maritime in one sense. For 10 years or 15 years we’ve had systems like that on board vessels that are meant to do switching between different connectivity options. VSAT and FleetBroadband have been used together for quite a while, but now we are just moving into an environment where there are more connectivity options available. Iridium Certus came in, then we added 4G, now there’s Starlink and other LEO coming in, but the need to manage different options on board has been there for some time,” said Mr Chateau.

“Regarding the network itself, we are doing a lot of work with SD WAN to efficiently manage this blended connectivity environment, moving from having maybe two connectivity devices on board the vessel before to where it can be four or five in a modern set-up. We need more and more intelligence to be able to blend all this connectivity.”

“New technologies are a bit faster at switching, a bit smarter at managing this blended connectivity, and also able to optimise based on the application you want to use. Up to now it was usually based on who the user is, if they are a crew member or a captain or a machine then they’ll need a particular type of connectivity. Maybe the captain can send a large file over FleetBroadband because it’s critical information, but for crew welfare maybe they’re limited to VSAT. If you have an application that needs low latency, you will prefer LEO, if you are doing something that needs to be very reliable and stable then maybe you will want to use the VSAT.”

The Aussaguel station conducts hybrid network testing, blending connectivity from a range of different providers – a set-up likely to become more common at sea

Management of complexity in hybrid networks also extends to the hardware itself, including the antennas and the below decks equipment required to connect to the optimal choice from a variety of different networks as circumstances dictate.

“Five years ago, we were all thinking, with LEO coming, maybe everyone will get rid of the 2.4m antenna on the deck. It’s probably true to an extent, but then you move to a situation where you will need five different carriers, different antennas etc, and you have to cope with all that different technology,” said Mr Veber.

“So, I’m not sure it will always be simpler in terms of integration, in terms of space on the deck. That’s a challenge. Maybe the expectation from users is that it will be simpler, but while some things may become simpler other aspects will become more complex.”

“What it will clearly bring is improvements in terms of SLAs (service level agreements). We talked about reduced latency, and the throughput obviously is better, but it will still be important to design the system to support critical applications. It might not be much of a problem for OT but for critical applications, things like autonomous systems where you need to have your system connected 100% of the time, people will need blended hybrid connectivity to guarantee the SLA. Then you’ll need to add a layer on top to manage latency, jitter, packet loss, all of these things.”

Another of the challenges that accompanies such a massive explosion in the data generated and shared by shipping companies is the need to classify and categorise all of this digital information into a usable format, so that the bits and bytes can be exploited to create operational value. This process will continue to increase in significance as tools incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning improve and gain traction in the shipping sector.

“Working with partners will definitely grow in importance too, typically that will mean collaborating with companies to better understand the architecture of the vessels and better classify the data. That’s one of the big challenges of IoT data, it is difficult to really be able to put the right classification on the data so that you can apply artificial intelligence or machine learning. You need to have a good data set and that’s where we do a lot of work with class societies, for example,” said Mr Chateau.

“Increasing standardisation in data formats in maritime, that would be a great help. Today it’s really difficult, each installation, each vessel is a challenge because every time you get new data that needs to be tagged. Even when it’s the same manufacturers of the equipment, from one vessel to another, even if they are supposed to be sister vessels, it’s not the same configuration and the data set is completely different. Every time we have to learn, try to understand what the underlying data refers to, and really have to redo everything.”

“It’s a lot of work because data standardisation does not really exist yet in maritime. That would help a lot. Today we are doing it downstream, later in the chain, but really, we need to have that data specified from the beginning. We have to do translation, a little bit using basic AI, looking at strings that you need to interpret to understand that it is probably ‘the pump from the second engine’.”

It is enlightening to see how the conversation in maritime technology has shifted in the 20 years that have passed since 128 kbps was the latest and greatest, with the challenge now focused on managing a plethora of high-speed onboard options and standardising data to maximise the potential of the artificial intelligence tools now available.

Vessel bandwidth may be 1,000 times better than it was two decades ago, but very few would argue that the industry is 1,000 times better at exploiting the data available to optimise shipping operations. The possibilities are there to support major advances in efficiency, sustainability and innovation – it will be interesting to see how the maritime community responds to these opportunities in the years ahead.

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About the Author

Picture of Rob O'Dwyer
Rob O'Dwyer

Rob is Chief Network Officer and one of the founders of Smart Maritime Network. He also serves as Chairman of the Smart Maritime Council. Rob has worked in the maritime technology sector since 2005, managing editorial for a range of leading publications in the transport and logistics sector. Get in touch by email by clicking here, or on LinkedIn by clicking here.

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