Superyacht VSAT disruptors

ONBOARD talks to Simon Pearce about the VSAT disruptors in 2022 within the satellite and communications arena and what we can expect in the coming years

A year ago, I talked about the upcoming disruption of the VSAT services due to the imminent introduction of Starlink, closely followed by OneWeb, and 2022 certainly hasn’t disappointed. Even in the wake of COVID disruption, Starlink have managed to launch their service covering much of the world. OneWeb, even with the last-minute move from Russia to India from and even SpaceX for launch services, are back on track to launch their maritime service fully in 2023. The disruption has affected, and will continue to affect, every level of the industry from satellite design through terminal hardware to customer experience, not least of which is because Elon Musk has been driving much of it.

Early Starlink adopters have been using the RV version on board yachts with some considerable success, but as predicted, Starlink have now released their maritime version with hardware costs of $10,000 and a monthly subscription of $5,000 (matrixed satellite laser links to ‘land’ traffic come at a price). This has a fair use policy (FUP) which will start in February 2023 and restricts customers that exceed 1TB per month in peak hours, 7am to 11pm, to ‘Basic Access’. Early adopters that are sticking with the $99 RV version are now being restricted to land based, non-mobile use, although the geofences are not completed in every region as yet and service can be unpredictable as yachts move away from the shoreline. It may be that some yachts that have installed the RV version will simply accept the geographical limitations of the service and replace their 4G system due to the low cost and high performance of Starlink and use existing VSAT services as they venture into international waters.

One thing is for sure, Starlink’s box shifting model, which has achieved >500,000 users already, does lack customer support, and various Facebook groups have become the go-to for end users to get advice, the quality of which can vary immensely.

Established resellers that service the Superyacht AV/IT sector can only purchase the equipment and service from Starlink at the same price as an end user, which, on the face of it doesn’t appear to be a good option for them, until you look at the value-added services and support that they can provide as a revenue stream to meet the demanding requirements of the Superyacht sector. That said, Starlink doesn’t provide API access to allow resellers to be able to trouble shoot and provide remote support and advice and failing hardware will need to be swapped out rather than repaired.

OneWeb, on the other hand, have ensured that API access is readily available to enable full support throughout the reseller channel. OneWeb’s model is wholesale and will therefore only be available via resellers who can also advise on secondary connectivity as well as onboard networks (existing network hardware that has supported 10Mbps links may well not cope with 200Mbps!), remote ETO services, automatic and remote power management, cyber, monitoring and IoT.

With the general shift to Cloud services, connectivity is becoming even more critical and the low latency of the LEO constellations makes them very favourable as primary services, but it’s widely accepted that Starlink’s maritime service will generally require a VSAT service to ensure seamless reliability to the end user, partly due to them not providing any guaranteed bandwidth (CIR) and partly due to lack of direct support, except via resellers and it’s simply not worth their reputation to provide a best effort service, unsupported. OneWeb’s CIR goes a long way to ensuring that end users won’t be left with patchy or no connection.

The recent acquisition of OneWeb by Eutelsat promises a new level of financial stability and the potential to blend OneWeb’s LEO constellation with Eutelsat’s 36 satellite GEO constellation, which is also Ku band. It’s easy to see that this would be a very powerful combination of services to provide redundant, resilient, ultrafast services and give the operator the opportunity to offer this at a fixed price. Starlink can’t offer this, however, the resellers have options that can include secondary VSAT services and the success of this will be very much down to how this can be charged for. You don’t want to pay for a VSAT service while you are using Starlink, but with the reseller handling the failover between services (and / or bandwidth management and bonding), it should be possible to select a package that will meet the end users’ needs and offer best commercial value.

The onboard hardware is very different between the two systems and we will see more of this as new providers come to market, O3bMpower and All Space spring to mind. Starlink’s proprietary maritime system comprises of 2 independent systems with no interconnectivity, so bonding, failover or aggregation must be performed separately. Many early adopters have decided to further protect the antennas by mounting them in radomes with reportedly little effect on performance. This, however, directly invalidates the Starlink warranty and there is a specific clause to cover this.

OneWeb’s maritime hardware will have 2 options from April next year as both Intellian and Kymeta have targeted the release of their systems to be in time for OneWeb’s Mediterranean service launch in May 2023, nicely in time for the season. At a predicted price point of $20,000, Intellian’s single terminal, dual antenna system will provide tried and tested marinized performance. The competitive pricing, compared to standard VSAT hardware, has been achieved by Intellian’s use of cell phone chip sets and not requiring a block upconverter (BUC) which typically can cost around $6,000 per antenna. The simplified structure will presumably also be reflected in lower maintenance requirements and costs.

The Kymeta u8 is a single aperture flat panel antenna that, in recent tests in Toulouse, France, achieved throughput in excess of 200Mbps down and 40Mbps up which is sufficient to deliver OneWeb’s proposed data plans. The tests apparently delivered a satisfactory beam and satellite handover experience, however more than one antenna is required for seamless handover and user experience.

Installation quality is always important, not just for the antennas and BDE but also for the onboard network, and this is clearly demonstrated by the varying speed tests posted on the Starlink support forums. If local network hardware is old or network traffic isn’t managed effectively, then the high speeds delivered at the router by the satellite network will not be seen on the LAN or indeed the customers device, and perceived performance and value for money will be lower.

Starlink have set their prices and as expected the maritime pricing reflects the cost of providing mobile bandwidth. Their MIR only, one size fits all approach is very competitive compared to standard VSAT, but it remains to be seen how they will compete with the upcoming LEO services. OneWeb maritime plans are expected to be published early in 2023 by the resellers, but what we already know is that OneWeb will offer what they term as a ‘simple but flexible’ range of options from 10/2 Mbps to 200/20 Mbps with CIR, plus data allowances from 100Gb to unlimited, and can include suspension periods.

Whichever system you choose, it’s fair to say that the continued disruption at every level in this sector can only be good for the end users, and from 2024 onwards we will be able to add IRIS2, Kuiper, Lightspeed, O3bMpower and others into this rapidly evolving conversation. But to meet the demanding requirements of a superyacht I know what I would choose right now.