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Has Maritime Reached the Tipping Point for Satellite?

If there is one truth the satellite industry universally accepts, it is that mobility is key to the future. Broadcasting cost-effectively one-to-many has always been satellite’s secret sauce. In a world being spanned by terrestrial wireless and high-capacity fiber, however, the other sure bet is on moving objects that can never be tethered to a wire or fiber and that spend part of their time beyond cellular coverage.

Since Inmarsat launched its first satellite, maritime has been the go-to mobility market for satellite. Over the past 20 years, the data demands of ships, drilling and production platforms gradually outgrew the capacity limits and pricing model of that company, which opened opportunities for Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) to serve higher-demand customers. It also justified Inmarsat’s launch of the I-5 fleet and introduction of Global Xpress.

And yet… and yet. Maritime may also be the poster child for frustration in satellite markets. Containers carry about 90 percent of the world’s non-bulk cargo (oil, gas, grains) worldwide. But it remains a remarkably fragmented industry. A 2017 study by Clarksons Research revealed that the world’s 89,000 ships were spread across 24,000 owners, which works out to less than four vessels per owner. The top three operators at the start of 2017 owned just 1,550 vessels, or less than 2 percent of the total. As small-to-midsize companies, ship owners tend to be extraordinarily cost-conscious. They have accepted maritime satcom as an unavoidable safety measure but it is not as though they ever want their officers or crew to actually use the terminals.

Paying for a Happy Crew

But there is so much that high-quality communications can contribute to a voyage. It improves the morale of crew and officers — and that matters at a time when the maritime industry expects to face a hiring shortfall of more than 360,000 mariners by 2050, according to a recent report.

Mariners spend from a few months to a year at sea. They leave behind family and friends to sail with a rotating cast of strangers and lose easy access to the normal amenities of life, from entertainment to education. Access to email and social media, Netflix and live sports, make a big difference.

But crew welfare communications can be a red flag for ship owners. The cost of bandwidth can produce real sticker shock, so most owners do all they can to restrict access to communications, even when it can make running a fleet more difficult or dangerous.

ITC Global is a service provider that has developed an intriguing solution to this dilemma. Its Crew Live service separates services for the ship from services for the personal use of the crew. It provides crew members with individual pay-as-you-go accounts, so that they can make decisions about how much online access they need. Just announced this month, the service includes a library of movies and TV series.

The more predictable needs of the ship are met by the ship’s own account and, in the event of emergency, the capacity reserved for the crew is available to the ship. Service is delivered over the global Panasonic network, and includes the shipboard hardware, software and management services.

It sounds simple, but the impact can be profound. “We’re seeing more than 30,000 registered crew members use an average of 1 gigabit of data per month,” says ITC Global Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ian Dawkins. Yet ship owners don’t have a problem — because the money being spent is not theirs, and their own spending goes to greater safety, efficiency and productivity for the vessel.

Keeping the Bananas Cool

If paying to keep the officers and crew happy is a relatively low priority for most ship owners, what is worth paying for? Happy customers, as it turns out.

One of the world’s largest shipping companies has found a way to make sure that bananas picked in the field and put into a shipping container reach their destination ready for sale. Globecomm, an integrator and service provider, created an Internet of Things (IOT) solution in partnership with AT&T and other vendors. They equip refrigerated shipping containers with temperature sensors and small computers. Each container keeps track of its temperature and reports it over a wireless link to a central computer aboard ship. Wherever the ship sails, the computer stays connected over Globecomm’s satellite network to the shipping company’s computers.

The result? An accurate, real-time record of what went on inside the container, from the moment it was closed on one side of the ocean to the moment it is opened on the other. When a perishable cargo goes bad, somebody has to make good on it. This “Satellite of Things” solution makes sure the shipper does not pay for problems it did not cause — and that can be worth millions every year.

Tipping Point?

Has maritime communications reached the tipping point? Are customers ready to stop thinking of meaningful connectivity for ships and platforms at sea as a necessary evil and start seeing it as a value-add worth paying for?

There is certainly plenty in the communications toolkit. Telemedicine services can keep crew members healthy and avoid emergency stops at the nearest port, which can cost millions in direct costs and foregone revenue. Digital ship applications can optimize fuel use, improve fleet management and reduce equipment failure and the resulting downtime.

The path to future growth will run through applications like Crew Live and the “Satellite of Things” — creative combinations of satellite capacity and digital management systems that solve burning problems for the people who count the revenue and cost of every voyage. The last thing ship owners want is for anybody aboard to actually use that satellite-connected equipment — unless they know exactly how it helps put money in their pocket.

Robert Bell is executive director of the Space & Satellite Professionals International. SSPI produces the Better Satellite World campaign, which dramatizes the immense contributions of space and satellite to life on Earth. More at www.bettersateliteworld.com.