Earlier this year, the crew of the 46 meter (m) sailing yacht Ganesha watched the Six Nations Rugby Championship online, while in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Two 60-centimeter (cm) Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) antennas connected the yacht to Inmarsat’s High Throughput Satellite (HTS) Service Fleet Xpress maritime broadband, enabling what in the past may have been considered an unthinkable luxury. Wherever the boat went, the crew were able to enjoy constant 10 Megabits Per Second (Mbps) of connectivity, which, according to Peter Broadhurst, senior vice president of yachting and passenger at Inmarsat Maritime, would allow them to watch Netflix, send emails, and post on social media from most parts of the world.
“In the past, large yachts would mostly hang around the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, which they still do, but we see many of them becoming more adventurous,” says Broadhurst. “They want to go to places such as the Galapagos, Antarctica, or the French Polynesia islands, which means that they really need satellite connectivity.”
Even in the traditional yachting hotpots, in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, satellite connectivity is growing in importance. While popular ports such as Monaco or Saint-Tropez may boast high-speed Wi-Fi and powerful LTE networks, the amount of yachts competing for connectivity is too high to fully satisfy everybody, leading many yacht owners to rely on VSAT instead. Once they sail further away from the coast, terrestrial connectivity is no longer accessible.
“15 to 20 miles off shore, you may sometimes be able to get some LTE connectivity, but it depends where the shore side mast is and you have no real control over that,” says Broadhurst.
“With terrestrial services, such as 3G and 4G, it’s always just ‘best effort’ — there is no guarantee you are going to get a good connection because you share it with other users, whereas with VSAT, you can have some contracted confirmation of the bandwidth you are getting.”
Inmarsat started fitting first yachts with their basic L-band Fleet Broadband more than ten years ago. In the past few years, the London-based mobile satcom provider has witnessed a trend of customers increasingly migrating towards their higher data rate Fleet Xpress service, which adds Ka-band connectivity to enable music and video streaming, connectivity to offices for business applications, and voice-over-IP applications such as Skype and FaceTime.
“It’s definitely been a few years when we have seen the demand for data rise, especially in the super yacht industry,” said Broadhurst. “They have always been keen on new technologies. They always want to have the latest and greatest and don’t worry that much about cost.”
Mega yachts that comprise the top of the luxury yachting segment might ask for hundreds, not tens of megabits of connectivity, and their owners don’t flinch to pay the exorbitant monthly fees associated with such a service.
Bertrand Hartman, the CEO of OmniAccess, a Mallorca-based company specializing in connectivity for the super yacht sector, says that luxury yacht owners are a very unique breed of satcom users and always push the service providers out of their comfort zone.
“Super yachts are typically owned by people who are very wealthy — heads of states, owners of large businesses,” says Hartman. “They spent absolute fortunes on these yachts but the only way they can enjoy them for extended periods of time is if they can stay connected to their offices. Connectivity is absolutely critical for them and they are willing to pay the premium prices that such a service-level requires”.
OmniAccess, according to Hartman, currently provides connectivity to about 400 mega yachts, explorer vessels, and boutique cruiseliners. In a high-end yachting niche, which only comprises of some 1,500 vessels, the firm is currently an undisputed market leader.
Founded in 2007, OmniAccess started off as a provider of terrestrial connectivity for the super yacht segment, running Wimax networks in Mediterranean ports. In 2010, the firm added VSAT connectivity to their portfolio and built their first teleport in Palma. Today, they cooperate with all major satellite operators, supplying private managed networks to the most demanding customers.
OmniAccess, with its package of services that comprises capacity from multiple satellite operators, 4G, as well as Wi-Fi, can provide up to 500 Mbps to a single yacht.
“Our customers are used to have hundreds of megabits of connectivity at home and want to have basically the same experience when they are at sea,” says Hartman. “There are obvious technical challenges. This segment is perhaps much less price sensitive than other segments, but on the other hand it’s very risk averse. The tolerance for failure is an absolute zero.”
Without connectivity, Hartman says, many yachts might not even be built. If their busy influential owners were not able to use their vessels as a fully-fledged remote office, they would probably hesitate to invest such enormous amounts of money into something they could enjoy only rarely.
Satellite is a critical enabling technology for this always connected experience. Multiple antennas are a must on every yacht and the ability to connect simultaneously to multiple spacecraft is the preferred option.
“We have to be prepared for all sorts of failures,” says Hartman. “This segment is absolutely about reputation. It takes years to build that reputation, but you can blow it in one day.”
As much as the growing adventurous streak of yacht owners pushes satcom providers to up their game in some of the previously underserved regions, the availability of high throughput connectivity is what decides the lure of destinations that aspire to attract the bulk of mainstream sailors.
Hartman cites the Seychelles, the archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the east-African coast, as an example of a once popular cruising area that lost its luster partly due to the lack of satellite coverage.
“The Seychelles used to be a reasonably popular cruising area for these big yachts five or six years ago,” says Hartman. “They experienced a dip in interest because of problems with piracy in the region, but then, while cruising regained the momentum in all other areas, it never returned to the Seychelles. It took them two years to realize that the only satellite that covered that area, which is notoriously difficult to service, got decommissioned without a replacement.”
After another satellite was moved to a position where its signal could reach the isles, the yachts started to return.
Hartman said that OmniAccess doesn’t aspire to expand into other maritime sectors, but hopes to increase its stake in the high-end luxury yachting niche. The segment itself, he said, is growing steadily by about 5 percent per year. New yachts are being built, they are getting bigger, and their owners keep asking for more and more bandwidth — a trend that is not going to go away.
Kerry Pettitt, the head of the super yacht division at global satellite communications provider Speedcast, agrees that there will likely never be enough bandwidth to fully satisfy the needs of yacht owners. Allowing multiple users on board of the vessel to download and stream movies, watch sports matches, and run video-conferences, all at the same time— is what many owners consider a must, not a luxury.
Speedcast serves a wide range of sectors including maritime, energy, broadcast and telecommunications, sourcing satellite capacity from all major operators.
Pettitt says that the luxury yacht market differs substantially from other maritime segments such as commercial shipping and cruises, which Speedcast serves.
“In luxury yachting, the important thing is the boss’s connectivity, not his budget,” says Pettitt. “The boss is the owner of the yacht and it is important for him to be happy. In commercial shipping, there is a set budget per fleet and the crew has to fall in line with that.”
In commercial shipping in particular, the focus is on return on investment and cost efficiency. Investment has to be justified, and the sector is therefore much more cautious about adopting new technologies, according to Inmarsat’s Broadhurst.
“The shipping industry is very conservative,” says Broadhurst. “It goes through cycles: good times and bad times. Their major motivation is to drive down the cost. They don’t really like to add more cost, unless they can see where they get the return. I think we are at that tipping point with commercial vessels now where they can see that adding a little bit more spending on communications can really improve the operational efficiency.”
For commercial vessels, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that enable fuel savings and emissions reduction could be a major motivation to add more connectivity. The customers’ requirements are generally relatively stable and predictable. In yachting, on the other hand, flexibility is a major requirement as plans frequently change from day to day, unlike in commercial shipping and cruising.
“When a yacht is interested in getting a service, they will contact you directly, and they will want to bring it up on the network relatively quickly,” says Pettitt.
“Whereas if you look at commercial shipping or cruise lines, these are contracts that take months to discuss. Things move a lot more rapidly in the yacht market and decisions are made very much by the end users as opposed by the company.”
Last year, European satellite communications provider Marlink, which focuses on maritime clients, started offering satellite connectivity in the Northwest Passage, the sea route connecting the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic. Marlink President for Maritime Tore Morten Olsen says the company had to work out a solution for this region, which is notoriously difficult to cover, due to the amount of requests coming from super yacht crews and luxury cruise operators.
Olsen says the company expects massive leaps in coverage of the Arctic and other challenging regions with the arrival of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations such as OneWeb, SpaceX, and Telesat.
“We expect LEO to be of special interest to yacht owners,” SAYS Olsen. “The LEO constellations will open up more capacity, which, we expect, will be a market driver and push the price point down. It will open up new capacity in regions where there has been none or very little.”
Polar regions are currently served only by the Iridium constellation, which provides only limited bandwidth.
LEO, Olsen said, will also solve the latency problem inherent to Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, which makes the use of many applications difficult.
OmniAccess’ Hartman agrees: “With LEO we will be able to provide the same level of throughput that you have in a typical office in London,” he says. “For the first time, we will be able to offer complete global coverage. Instead of megabits, we will be able to provide gigabits with fiber-like latencies. That will be an absolute game-changer in our segment.”
In March this year, in a worldwide first, OmniAccess signed a contract with Canadian satellite operator Telesat, which is building a global LEO constellation, expected to commence commercial operations in 2022.
But Inmarsat, the traditional GEO player, is upping its game in the Polar Regions too. In August, the company announced plans to triple the number of Global Xpress satellites over the next four years. Two of the planned satellites, GX10A and GX10B, will target the polar regions specifically. Expected to launch in 2022, the two satellites, unlike the rest of Inmarsat’s fleet, will be placed into the highly elliptical orbit.
In addition to providing more bandwidth to more remote locations, the challenge many providers are hoping to tackle is to connect smaller yachts — those without nearly unlimited financial resources.
For adventurers, such as Steve McInnis, the captain of sailing yacht Maverick, connectivity is mostly about safety, the ability to keep an eye on weather patterns and staying in touch with loved ones.
On their recent Atlantic crossing, the six-men crew aboard the yacht benefitted from Inmarsat’s basic Fleet One service.
“We are mostly using it for email and voice calls,” says McInnis. “The voice quality is very good. It’s like talking on your cell phone. There is no delay. We can even send email attachments and use a little bit of mobile websites, even though that’s quite slow.”
The sailors’ families can also keep track of Maverick’s movements on a tracking website, thanks to Fleet One connectivity.
McInnis, who has been sailing for five decades, says that satcom services have only gotten affordable for small yacht owners in the past five years. Previously, the sailors would have to invest into dedicated satellite phones while today’s technology allows them to comfortably use their own devices.
Adventurers, such as McInnis, who previously took part in the Volvo Ocean Race, which is sponsored by Inmarsat, are early adopters among small yacht owners. Participation in such races requires yachts to have a satellite phone on board for safety reasons.
Inmarsat’s Broadhurst agrees that demand for satcom connectivity among small yacht owners is still relatively low but similarly to the shipping sector, the status quo might soon change.
“We expect the size of the market to increase in the future,” said Broadhurst. “In the past, connectivity was a norm for yachts 50 m and above. Now it’s about 40m, and it will be 25 m in the not so distant future.”
McInnis hopes to see higher data rates to be available for the same price in the future.
“I expect we will see the same development that happened with cell phones,” he says. “More data, faster data, and less expensive data. Then it will become more of an everyman’s communication tool.” VS