Increased competition from VSAT providers widens options for offshore personnel

Satpool Sweden is one of the world's leading suppliers of maritime and off-shore communications and IT systems.

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Th 6010ossatp
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Satpool Sweden is one of the world's leading suppliers of maritime and off-shore communications and IT systems. The company has been involved in numerous significant developments, for example, the installation of the first Ship Earth Station (SES) on board a Swedish general cargo vessel in 1976. This occurred six years prior to the establishment of Inmarsat in 1982.

The founder of Satpool, Captain Lars Brodje, has spent almost 40 years in the marine industry. For much of that time he has specialised in communications and was actively involved in the lead-up to the present Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). He feels that people have begun to take for granted the communications and IT tools that surround them at home and in their shore-based offices. Furthermore, they are starting to look for the same capabilities when they go to sea. Brodje observes that their expectations include:

  • high quality, multi-channel voice and facsimile communications;
  • e-mail services and access to their company's Intranet and the Internet;
  • the opportunity to take part in video conferences;
  • the ability to share and exchange large data files;
  • access to management information and reporting systems covering a whole range of issues such as safety, training, operations and maintenance;
  • enhanced personal communications.

"Essentially, people working onboard ships and offshore installations want to feel they are fully integrated with their colleagues, families and friends on land, no matter where they are in the world at any particular moment in time. They expect a modern IT environment linked into the company's shore-based systems," Brodje says.

There are considerable benefits of achieving this kind of environment. They include enhanced decision support, optimization of operational performance, improved cost efficiency, better safety and, not least, improved social conditions.

Although there have been developments in this direction over the past several years, progress has been restricted by the relatively narrow bandwidth, and so limited capacity, of the communications systems on offer. Cost has also been a factor, and ships and offshore installations have typically operated with one voice channel and one data channel only.

Inmarsat is the main player in this area and operates several satellite systems - Inmarsat A, B, C and mini-M, all utilizing the L-band. The majority of the world's shipping and offshore communications are currently provided through one or other of Inmarsat's services. The widely-used Inmarsat-B service transfers data at rates between 9.6 kilobits and 64 kilobits per second (Kbps). Costs are typically in the region of $2.50 - $3.50/minute for voice, fax and data communications, at least at lower transfer rates. The cost of the higher data rate is currently in the region of $6 - 10/min.

Inmarsat is endeavoring to meet the modern, tougher requirements through the introduction of a worldwide, 64 Kbps data system based on spot beam technology. This will use new mobile terminals as well as a fourth generation satellite system covering the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. However, the costs to users are unlikely to be lower than at present.

VSAT vs Inmarsat

Brodje argues that one of the biggest threats to Inmarsat comes from newer VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) systems, initially developed for military applications and first introduced to the maritime market around 10 years ago.

Satpool provides, installs and services both systems and so is in a good position to compare the two. Brodje points out that VSAT offers the necessary higher bandwidth, from 64 Kbps up to 2 Megabits per second, with the capacity for a large number of simultaneous voice, fax, data and video channels. However, VSAT currently has limited geographical coverage and the shipboard equipment is very expensive to install - it could be five times the cost of Inmarsat equipment. This is mainly since very high precision, stabilised antennae are required; whereas Inmarsat antennae need to be directed towards the satellite with an accuracy of 1-2o, VSAT antennae must have accuracies of 0.1-0.2o.

Proponents of VSAT suggest that the high initial charges for the system are offset by lower operating costs. Deals which involve leasing the equipment over a 3-year period can result in running costs as low as 3 US cents per minute. But it needs to be pointed out that VSAT users pay a fixed fee for the service, in contrast to Inmarsat users who pay according to the time spent on line, and the cost of 3 US cents per minute refers to relatively high traffic levels. Many low level users still find that Inmarsat comes out on top economically.

In technical terms, VSAT technology has tremendous untapped potential. DAMA (Demand Assigned Multiple Access) VSAT systems have recently replaced the earlier single carrier per channel systems and provide the various kinds of communication via IP protocol. DAMA VSAT systems are also very effective in the use of the available space segment, which leads to benefits when a fleet of vessels is sharing the same space segment in the same satellite foot print.

Satpool has recently worked with ViaSat, one of the leaders in this field, to install the latter's hubless 'Starwire' DAMA VSAT systems on the Star Cruise fleet of ships and also on oilfield service vessels operated by Halliburton Company.

For more information contact Captain Lars Brodje, Satpool. Tel: +46 31 709 15 51, Fax: +46 31 709 40 02, E-mail lars.brodje@satpool.se

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