Is orbit envy the new battle of the bands?

Increased choice is coming to maritime communications with benefits to shipowners; digitalisation demands options writes Tore Morten Olsen, Marlink.

Many shipowners are looking forward with interest to the potential benefits promised by a new generation of communications satellites. The reason for the interest is simple; the providers have allowed users to believe that bandwidth will be both much more plentiful and much cheaper than that currently available.

As the largest independent provider of VSAT in maritime we welcome new services that can make life better for owners and their crews. We’re actively engaged with some of the ‘new LEO’ providers investigating how their services integrate with the systems onboard merchant ships. These new systems represent a continued evolution in the satellite communications space, allowing for improved capabilities for some applications and services beneficial to the maritime community.

Our view is that greater choice bandwidth is good news – we already provide terrestrial connections where it makes more sense than GEO capacity for that very reason. The question we think shipowners should be asking is what they want to achieve and how far new LEO services fit their strategy.

Some years ago satellite providers were briefly engaged in the ‘battle of the bands’ in which various different satellite operators pushed competing benefits of Ka, Ku and C-band satellite frequencies – mostly to the indifference of users. Who was right? Everybody, as it turned out.

Arguments now over whether LEO is better than GEO remind us of the same kind of argument, with predictable response from users. When you run a tap, water comes out; when you pick up your mobile phone you rarely if ever consider the route the data takes.

You want the combination of equipment, provider, applications, bandwidth and backbone to do their job. It’s the same in satellite – though with longer distances and more variables. A network of networks takes care of the voice or data from ship to satellite to network to end user. Use a specialist integrator and you have a choice of carriers, bandwidth designed to respond to application demand and land side hardware that covers the globe.

The key point is that owners don’t have to think about it because we have already done so. New LEO services come with questions to be answered; business model, financial sustainability, coverage, global hotspots versus ‘notspots’. None is commercially available as yet, making working comparisons hard.

Just like GEO services, these wrinkles will get ironed out. Probably some ventures will succeed and others fall out of the market, some services will be better suited to airline users than maritime and focus there.

Anyone involved in the maritime business knows you can’t be half in and half out; it demands full commitment, not just for safety services. Its truer than ever now, because the digitalisation that the industry is chasing is no longer a nice to have and more a necessity.

All the while that owners saw communications as an cumbersome expense they had good reason to limit their outlay. Then the cost of doing business rose to give crew VSAT communications. Now, higher bandwidth is needed to enable owners to transmit data on everything from course and speed to the temperature of pump number three.

In fact all this is possible now, using networks that combine L, Ku and Ka-band GEO services with cellular fill in and existing LEO services that provide coverage at previously ill-served altitudes.

So yes, new LEO services will be interesting; they might be cheaper for some users than others and we welcome new services we can offer to more end users.

But arguments over which orbit is better are reductive; it shouldn’t be the case that one is automatically better than others. They all have relevance given a strong business case and potential to build a user base.

We shouldn’t let such an exciting opportunity as maritime digitalisation turn into another battle of the bands. To make it happen will need more than one network, more than one provider to enable the applications required. Interoperability and common standards will also be key and all satellite operators and service providers have to think and act for the long term rather than just a few moments in the spotlight.

Back to top button