The future of superyacht satellite communications

As we move into one of the most exciting phases of communications technology in recent history, it’s a time of disruption and uncertainty for many and the term ‘future proof’ gets used more and more to reassure buyers that their confidence is not misplaced, however, true future proofing is not here yet but is promised in much of the next tier of solutions about to be released.

Software configurable satellites and soon, software configurable terminals will bring new levels of flexibility that will deliver something much closer to true future proofing. In fact, the emerging technology will deliver benefits far in advance of current capabilities to deliver it and, as usual, we won’t see the full benefits of these advances until technologies converge and back-office systems evolve to be able to offer the flexibility and control that is often talked about. The emerging capability to connect a single terminal to multiple constellations from multiple operators simultaneously, is way ahead of the current capability, or will, to invoice for it as a single service and for that reason alone, end user options are limited to those provided by each individual satellite operator.

The eagerly anticipated next generation phased array terminals will provide multibeam support so that 2 or more satellites in any orbit can be tracked simultaneously, providing make-before-break, high throughput connectivity via a single terminal. Ku versions have been tested successfully and the Ka option will be launched in 2022 and this, along with multiple options for modems, means that the antenna will be configurable to operate with any satellite constellation and only limited by the commercial offerings of the satellite operators.

New operators are bringing the benefits of LEO constellations to market and recent acquisitions see communications giants merging to combine networks to deliver immense capacity and higher reliability. We haven’t seen the end of the mergers and we are about to see disruptive pricing as LEO operators enter the maritime markets. The fact is, that it costs more to provide maritime VSAT than it does on land. Factors such as more resources in frequency spectrum usage, international licensing, laser link technology to land data and that there are far less end users in the maritime market to share the costs, all contribute to the relatively high cost of services, so don’t expect to see the $99 subscription in maritime anytime soon. Sector-wide surveys that I have been involved in over the past 5 years, show that year on year, end user expectations are for more bandwidth for similar costs.

Selecting hardware and services becomes more difficult as the number of options increases and to complicate it further, the drivers for such services are becoming stronger, even to the point of legislation. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) are, quite rightly, key focus points for the yachting industry as a whole and communications systems and services are the enabler for the monitoring and real-time information that is required to achieve these goals. Crew welfare, highlighted by the recent pandemic, is a noteworthy requirement for better connectivity and then we get to the onboard technologies that require higher bandwidth for entertainment as well as reliability for mission critical data and operating businesses from remote locations.

Whilst it’s easy to assume that we are waiting for technological advances to be delivered, the real benefits of these advances can only be delivered when the associated services can be combined commercially and invoiced as a single service. Lack of flexibility to manage bandwidth, particularly with VSAT, has often been attributed to technical limitations, but in reality, it is usually antiquated back office and billing systems that require manual intervention that prevent ultimately flexible services being offered and besides, the only reason that you need such flexibility is that current VSAT subscriptions don’t deliver fibre-like connectivity at low cost.

API integration has enabled resellers to develop portal access for their customers, which provide service performance data as well as control over subscriptions and activations, however, the API integration doesn’t generally automatically update the satellite operators service and manual intervention is required. New satellite operators are designing their systems to have full API integration from day one and this will enable a much higher level automation, leading to better service levels and ultimately, increased customer satisfaction.

5G is being talked about as though it’s commonly available, but the reality is that right now, around the world, terrestrial 5G networks are at various stages of implementation and little, if anything, is currently available at sea. The frequencies allocated to 5G are part of the reason why as the higher frequencies commonly used on land have less penetration into structures and are ‘line of sight’ in terms of distance. Lower frequencies around 700MHz can be used to deliver better penetration and longer distances, so we can expect to see them used in cities and in coastal regions where network operators can use less nodes to deliver better coverage. The trade off here is that at lower frequencies, throughput is not as high as in the 3600Mhz range.

As always, the networks are only part of the 4/5G solution and onboard technology has an equal role to play in delivering top quality connectivity for customers when at sea. SIM, Antenna and router choice as well as positioning and quality of installation all combine to deliver the onboard experience and each element can affect the result dramatically.

Simplistically, when choosing antennas, for each 3dBi gain that the antenna delivers, it doubles the performance, although there are factors such as radiation patterns that play a part. Therefore, a 6dBi gain antenna will give approximately twice the performance of a 3dBi antenna. This, however, can all be lost in lengthy coaxial runs and, even with low loss coax, at 3600MHz you can lose around 3.31dBi per 20m without including any potential loss from low quality connections. Equally, antennas do not give a consistent gain across all frequencies and some ‘5G ready’ antennas have ignored the lower, 700MHz frequencies in favour of the higher 3600MHz range, great in port, but not so good when sailing over 12 miles from shore.

4/5G dome antennas are appearing on the market from various manufacturers and the two things that they have in common are multiple antennas for MIMO throughput and that they can contain the router in the dome with zero signal loss in coaxial runs and therefore provide simple ethernet output from the antenna down to the network controller.

It seems then, that dome antennas are the solution going forwards, but they do currently have a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, to change SIMs, you need to remove the dome to access the router. Some versions have the capability to add a SIM injector, a device that can be installed somewhere accessible, for example, on the bridge, so that SIMs can be changed when moving from country to country, to take advantage of best performance and price. This is an important point, as the alternative is to use roaming SIMs which offer unlimited data plans at low cost, but these SIMs are not treated equally by the networks and play second fiddle to each of the networks ‘First Priority’ SIMs, resulting in roaming SIMs being throttled when the network is busy.

All of this adds up to more cost for hardware and installation and so maybe not within everyone’s budget, however, virtual or eSIMs are another way to avoid having to climb the mast or simply benefit from best performance and many value-added resellers will soon be able to offer this as a service.

Once again then, it seems that there’s no single solution that will deliver all of the benefits within the constraints of projects and budgets, so to proceed and ensure that you are getting the best connectivity for you, all of the above needs to be considered, so my advice is to work with service agnostic, value-added resellers that can consider your requirements as a whole and get them to explain why they recommend each element of their proposed solution so that you can be sure to get what’s best for you, because a key part of the value that they offer, is understanding the complex issues that affect every step of implementing communication systems and hey, with the immense technological advances that will enable information flow, cloud services and potential automation, it’s good to know that people still play a critical role.
 Simon Pearce has specialised in communications for the superyacht sector for satellite operators and value-added resellers and is currently contracted to Axxess Marine.