Shipping Companies Survey Connectivity Question in the New Normal

Connecting commercial and cruising ships has been a strong growth market for the satellite industry over recent years, as companies in this sector have seen their needs for connectivity spike up. However, as COVID-19 has hit, every sector has been impacted in some way. How will the marriage between satellite and maritime evolve as a result?

At SATELLITE 2019, which seems like an age ago, Klaus Bruun Egeberg, head of Mobility and Connectivity at shipping company Maersk, gave an intriguing presentation about the potential future relationship between the satellite and commercial shipping industry. More than a year later, he admits when he gave his presentation that that satellite was relatively new in its current setup. The question is now how much further satellite could be implemented in the future?

Maersk has been working over the past period to plan for the next generation of connectivity. Bruun Egeberg says the company is actively following a roadmap for this area. He admits that a few things during the pandemic have made Maersk more aware of how it will engage with other companies. He talks about how the Chapter 11 cases involving satellite companies, admitting Speedcast’s Chapter 11 proceedings are interesting. He talks of them surviving on razor thin margins, and if the company is losing part of the business, that could lead to a distressed situation. While Bruun Egeberg believes the OneWeb situation is quite different, he doesn’t think these filings will change the costs for Maersk.

“We are actually running a business critical service, so how can we ensure that service in the future, even in a situation where vendors are not going to survive and consolidate? We have been spending a lot of our efforts looking at business continuity. The plans have been updated. We are working this into our next solution. We are going to be more vendor and technology agnostic. That is going to materialize over the next year or so,” he says.

For Maersk, the next step is preparing for its next generation which it will migrate to over the next couple of years. Maersk is looking at a refresh of how it consumes connectivity and how it creates the necessary flexibility on the airtime it uses. Bruun Egeberg says the airtime component is very important for the company and Maersk needs flexibility to work across Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Orbit (GEO).

“This is really where we see the satcom industry being closer to the cellular industry and the MNOs [Mobile Network Operators]. If you compare the satellite industry to the cellular industry, it doesn’t matter if you have an iPhone, Samsung, Huawei phone, they all support basic connectivity. I can choose freely from who is providing the best performance. And this is exactly what I want to see in the satellite communications industry,” he says. “I am not buying a Marlink phone that can only work with Marlink connectivity. I need a solution that can work with any type of connectivity so satellite/Wi-Fi/LEO/MEO/GEO. I need a solution that can work across the whole of this spectrum.”

Bruun Egeberg says with GEO providing the base, he wants the freedom to choose what satellite capacity is needed, whether it be 4G/5G opportunities in port, or a LEO constellation like Starlink for vessels that need low latency and high bandwidth for a limited time period.

“We will have a much more diverse set-up in the future than what we have now today. LEO if it becomes available, even if it is more regional than global, I believe we will take it into operation. But, I also believe we will take cellular connectivity much more into our operation. We have made studies where globally we have looked at how much time that our vessels are within reach of terrestrial networks,” he says.

Importance of Satellite Connectivity

Marlink is a solutions provider that plays a key role for connecting ships and vessels. Tore Morten Olsen, the company’s president of Maritime believes satellite connectivity will continue to be essential to vessel operations. “The two principal challenges that shipping faces; digitalization and decarbonization cannot be overcome without connectivity. In addition to keeping crew and passengers connected, both the cruise and merchant shipping sectors need to make their operations far smarter and greener, embracing technology that supports asset optimization, emissions reduction, navigational safety, and the greater exchange of data between ship and shore,” he says.

Olsen says that Marlink experienced a strong pickup in demand for communications during the pandemic crisis, from both crews onboard and the enterprise side of the business, showing there is clearly a link between crisis and communications.

In the future, he believes that cruise lines — and perhaps merchant operators too — will be able to take advantage of early warning, tracking and tracing tools and applications that can be used to improve detection and manage spread mitigation, perhaps applying existing technologies in a different way. “A connected telemedicine service giving direct access to medical experts onshore is another example of how connectivity can help mitigate and manage these situations,” he says.

In terms of what might come next in this area, Olsen believes what we will see is the emergence of a fully connected maritime world driven by remote functionality which moves away from analog operations into a truly digital ecosystem of bits and bytes, zeros and ones, where managing these risks will become an integral part of the operations of cruise vessels.

“Doing so further unlocks the potential to embrace a green recovery based on far greater fuel efficiency and ultimately, new propulsion and fuel technologies. This scenario calls for a new degree of remote monitoring, maintenance and operations, embracing all aspects of the connected, low latency floating asset,” Olsen says.

Bounce Back

SES has made gains in maritime, and its recent deals with Carnival are an example of its work in this area. However, with the cruise market being particularly hard hit, what will this mean for SES? Greg Martin, SES’s vice president of Maritime believes connectivity will be more important than ever, as many cruise ship operators move toward newer high tech ships. He says SES is hearing that connectivity is going to be at the core of passenger needs — not just in terms of having a good experience, but a safe one as well. Martin says that with contact tracing, location services, remote support, telemedicine, and other connectivity technologies, operators and technicians will be able to fix issues remotely rather than having to be physically sent to a cruise. This is where satellite connectivity could come in.

He notes that guest applications launched by MSC Cruises and the Princess MedallionNet program will allow technicians and crew members to have direct communication with the guests.

“During the COVID-19 breakout, these technologies helped passengers and crew members to stay connected to each other as well as to the offshore world. What that translates too is more of a need for an unremitting, reliable, and resilient connection. I do think from what I am hearing that this is only going to increase demand for good connectivity, [and] cloud services once we get back into full swing,” Martin adds.

He believes safety is the biggest issue the cruise industry will have to overcome. “The cruise industry has a perception issue. They have the most advanced surveillance with people, passengers and crew, that are on the ship and it is only going to get enhanced as advances of COVID-19 testing will be key to cruises in the future. If cruise liners conduct all these safety measures, a cruise is probably one of the safest places to be due to the level of sanitization, the level of knowledge of where people are at, from a health perspective. But, getting people to accept and trust that is key,” Martin says.

Lately, he says OceanMedallion projects are continuing at a slower pace, and SES is starting to see the cruise industry scale back. “Cruise companies are focusing on some of their newer ships, more efficient ones that have better technologies and trying to standardize the technology used in all their ships,” he says. “We will see ships with the same technological features as we go into next year in order for them to get to that level of contact tracing, remote support, telemedicine etc.”

The nature of the deal flow has also been affected. “We have been approached by some cruise customers for some relief and we are trying to see how we can do our part to help them, but generally, the business hasn’t changed. We are seeing new opportunities coming in, especially with the broader market in satellite,” Martin says.

Early Phases

Telenor Satellite is another satellite operator that does a lot of business in maritime. Jan Hetland, director of Telenor’s Data Services Division, says in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, installations weren’t happening at all as installers were unable to travel within their own country, much less across national borders. As domestic and international travel restrictions are being lifted, the company has seen installation work resume, perhaps not quite to the same level as before the COVID-19 outbreak but increasing, month by month, he says. Hetland expects the health of passengers and staff onboard to attract more attention going forward. The ferry and cruise segments in particular will have to address this issue, he believes.

“Other large industry trends such as IoT [Internet of Things], autonomous shipping and connected technologies will hopefully be brought forward with renewed sense of importance. For the satellite industry directly, I would anticipate the focus shifting somewhat away from new large-scale constellations as funding may be harder to come by – particularly as the industry has already seen the failure of two such initiatives already. At the very least there will be significant delays to remaining initiatives. The underlying need for connectivity will remain, however, and we will see an ever larger population of maritime vessels getting connected and they will increasingly require more satellite capacity,” he says.

Hetland believes the COVID-19 outbreak has proven that quality connectivity is essential to continue operating as close to normal as possible when something extraordinary like this happens. “I bet most of us having to work from home during this ordeal were surprised how effective we can be as long as we have good connectivity to the outside world, allowing us to both see and hear our colleagues on a regular basis without having to be physically present in the same room. So overall, this underpins continued growth for satellite capacity serving the maritime community,” he adds.

Hetland talks of improved logistics, better situational awareness, and the potential to combine processing of data from a variety of sources including tracking the whereabouts of passengers at all times. “There are obvious personal data implications here, but that is another discussion altogether,” he says.

Inmarsat and the Telemedicine Equation

Inmarsat is a satellite operator with a rich heritage in maritime. With telemedicine service on ships likely to be a massive issue going forward, companies like Inmarsat must adapt to the changing needs of people on board ships. Inmarsat is working with VIKAND, a maritime medical service provider, which earlier this year launched the first total healthcare platform for the global shipping industry. This was made possible through Fleet Xpress, which provides the ability to separate the bandwidth required for medical services from those deployed on the vessel for operational requirements and crew connectivity services.

“The bandwidth required for the VIKAND service is triggered only as and when it’s needed, so the ship owners don’t have to pay to keep a connectivity channel open just in case. This avoids the risk of bill shock for ship operator. We now have some 200 vessels able to use the service and its value is being quickly realized, as officers and crew can access video calls to address a range of health issues both physical and mental,” says Ronald Spithout president of Inmarsat Maritime.

Spithout admits from a maritime perspective, the most effective way in which satellite operators can drive the benefits of telemedicine is to create an agnostic platform that can carry a multiplicity of services and which can be structured in a manner that does not impact the other uses of connectivity.

“Our central approach where we have adopted dedicated, on-demand triggered bandwidth [is key here.] This is a game changer and allows ship owners and operators to adopt any number of services without having to worry about the ongoing connectivity cost, as it’s only triggered when it’s required. It’s not only the maritime community this approach is relevant for. Maritime companies work with insurers and the option of healthcare services supported by triggered bandwidth will be important to them in terms of the services they offer.” VS

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