The launch of HTS services over the coming decade promises to provide something of a nirvana in maritime comms. But that’s far from the whole story.
The launch of HTS services over the coming decade promises to provide something of a nirvana in communications for the maritime industry. Potential increases, in bandwidth capability and available airtime, suggest that the sector will finally achieve some kind of parity to terrestrial throughput rates. While in some cases this may be true, it is far from the whole picture, says Geoff Davison, product manager, maritime, Thuraya Telecommunications.
A comprehensive awareness of the maritime satcoms landscape is more than simply recognising the changing dynamics of demand and supply. One also needs to consider customer behaviour and needs. Doing that makes it immediately clear that, for the majority of owners and operators, legacy L band systems will continue to command the lion’s share of voice and data traffic in coming years. That may seem counter- intuitive given the lower per megabyte costs and package deals to be had by upgrading but the fact remains that many shipping companies are still in survival mode. Ask the average ship owner how much he pays per megabyte and the chances are he does not know. Ask the same ship owner how much his communications bill is every month and he will be able to tell you quite easily ( and it will be too high). Look ahead to the medium term and the drivers to satcoms adoption are likely to remain focussed on a service that delivers on price, quality of signal, robustness, ease of use and installation.
HTS makes great news but questions remain
Do the majority of ship owners need a bandwidth pipe that big? Are they prepared for the complexity, the higher CAPEX on g r o u n d e q u i p m e n t a n d maintenance? Will these services work as well as L band in the mobility market? Even the providers accept that these services are likely to be attractive to comparatively few high- end users ~ making their penetration a small percentage of the addressable market. Anyone that has spent time in the maritime industry knows that the leading edge is not always representative of the majority. Shipping’s middle ground is a place of fragmented ownership and small to medium sized companies working in far lower profile niches. Ma n y V S A T v e n d o r s h a v e succeeded in making sales to such owners based on demand for crew welfare communications, but any communications package comes with limits, regardless of what the sales brochures say. Crew use of social media will test the parameters of contract clauses covering best effort, committed information rates, throttling back and maximum MB consumption. As the operator of a high capacity L band network, our experience is that for the majority of business users, a smaller pipe with more reliable throughput works fine ~ even accounting for peaks and troughs in demand. L band s i gnals , a n d t h ei r associated shipboard and ground based signals, are prized for their robustness, resistance to rain- fade and that fact that for the most pa r t t h e c r e w c a n i n s t a l l , troubleshoot and even upgrade the equipment, with a little help from a service provider.
F i g u r e s f r o m N o r t h e r n S k y Research suggest that in- service Maritime Safety Services units will grow from 368,000 in 2011 to 955,000 in 2021, the vast majority of them narrowband. Revenues from HTS services will begin to emerge by 2015 but maritime L band revenues will be double those of Ku and Ka band combined by 2021. True, L band is not completely
global but ‘ regionality’ is not limited to L band providers. Most current VSAT coverage is put together from beams operated by FSS providers ( Fixed Satellite Services) and coverage is rarely, if ever, global. The fact that maritime has never been a one- size- fits- all market, and is emerging from the worst downturn for almost a generation, is truer than ever. A successful shipping company will need to be connected, but it will also need to keep costs under c on t r o l a n d e mploy pr ov e n systems and services designed to fit its specific needs. Maritime is an environment where equipment must be designed for p u r p o s e a n d r e l i a b i l i t y . A consistent and reliable service, albeit at unstarry data rates, might be better for a mid- sized operator compared t o a high s peed connection that only gives 70 percent coverage and a high dropout rate.
The price equation will continue to play a key role
Ship owners do not spend their har d earn ed dol l ar s with ou t m e a s u r a b l e a n d m e a n i n g f u l payback. So there is good reason to believe that dedicated L band operators, who understand their customers and have close links to their partners, cannot just survive the HTS wave, they can prosper by continuing to provide a proven and trusted connection.