Navigating the future of maritime connectivity and digital solutions with Marlink

Interview between Adonis Violaris of CSN and Tore Morten Olsen and Knut Natvig of Marlink

Navigating the future of maritime connectivity and digital solutions- Marlink

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Knut Natvig
VP Corporate Press & PR


Can you provide an overview of Marlink’s role and contributions to the maritime industry, particularly in the realm of connectivity and digital solutions?

Marlink is a provider of hybrid network services and digital solutions to a large share of the maritime market.

We have around 30% global market share in terms of connectivity and we are an independent provider, meaning that we do not own satellites. We integrate and deliver whatever connectivity and digital solutions – such as cloud access, network management, cyber security – are best suited for a specific need of the client.

Of course these days it’s a lot about LEO services – and Starlink and OneWeb – other solutions are coming – which we are integrating to ensure a resilient and secure solution to our client base.

How has Marlink’s approach to maritime connectivity evolved over the years and what trends are you currently observing in the industry? I mean, you mentioned already Starlink, but what about others?

I’ve been with the company for 30 years and in that time we’ve seen the progression from narrowband services to maritime VSAT in the shipping and offshore markets. We have led that process because we don’t dictate what the customer gets; the choice is theirs and we support it..

VSAT started in cruise and the offshore sectors and gradually spread into maritime as owners needed to do more with high bandwidth.

Now with the digital economy and the energy transition, there need to be no limits on connectivity and the data that can be shared – whether that’s for business or crew. So as the new LEO services became available it was obvious that they would play a big role, but it’s a process you have to manage properly.

But with that come also increased risks, cyber threats, etc.

So we are focusing a lot on the digital solutions we provide to ensure that customers have an integrated network with services and applications but also that they can do so in a secure way.

There are a lot of people out there that offer cyber solutions for example, so it can be difficult for shipowners to choose the right one for their needs.

What is very important is that they take a holistic approach as to what is it that they want to achieve and how can they do that in a secure way. So for us, that means a lot of focus on endpoint protection for users, unified threat management for the network and really stopping threats before they get anywhere near the network. We operate our own Security Operations Center we call the SOC, to be able not only to detect cyber attacks, but also to resolve them on behalf of our client base.

Do you still have these kind of boxes on ships or you do protect the connectivity at the Marlink teleport?

We do both because we have always secured the network side and we still do that. So on all the teleports, there are large scale systems running to secure the traffic going in and out of the teleports. But then on the other hand, onboard the vessels, when people are bringing their own devices, like a phone or an iPad, they are connecting to the network, so we also need to secure the vessel side.

So we still have a box out there, which is becoming more and more of a virtual box we call the Xchange platform. It’s a server on board where we host certain applications to ensure that we really protect the data that is entering the ship.

This is really important for the kind of crew welfare services we see coming now, brining much better connectivity to the crew on board.

We can take care of the data volumes, so that the crew work when they have to and get their rest hours with the knowledge they will still be able to connect to friends and family.

So for us it’s the full suite built around our Xchange platform and network management. It’s also worth mentioning that additional bandwidth means interest in data collection is increasing significantly as owners can take advantage of improving operational efficiency and reporting for safety.

Do you cooperate with fleet monitoring system companies like NAPA, for example?

We do co-operate with a few of them and we’re open to the idea of partnerships, but what we do is not the analytics. we give them the possibility to secure the data they are collecting on board the ship and transfer it safely to whomever needs it, whether that’s the owner’s shore teams, a third party shipmanager or an optimisation provider who has the task of analysing the data.

What role do you see satellite technology playing in the future of maritime connectivity and how is Marlink positioning itself in this landscape?

So satellite connectivity is always going to be a very key part for the maritime industry. There are no cables that are going to be rolled out after the vessels, right? But satellite connectivity is changing. It used to be just L-band for safety or GEO VSAT services for business and crew communications but what you could do was pretty limited.

Now you see a new landscape where you basically get the same experience onboard as you get with 5G on your phone, but it’s still a satellite-based service. So Marlink is partnering with all these new providers, be it Starlink or OneWeb or Kuiper in future to deliver those where they are needed.

And we want to really blend and integrate those services in the best way possible for the specific markets. Because a merchant ship manager or ferry operator will have a different need than an offshore support company, which has a different to a seismic survey company. So we’re really trying to optimise exactly for the market segments we’re serving.

And that’s not only the connectivity but making the digital solutions and the security around them a priority for our customers.

I was reading somewhere that there will be something like a 5G from the space. Is it something that you are looking into that?

Absolutely, that’s the kind of service you can get with LEO. So right now Starlink is the leader or ahead of the pack if you like. OneWeb is coming up. But we also have Amazon developing a service, which may bring even higher speeds in the future.

So we think that the limitation of connectivity is gone, but it’s still a budget topic for many ship owners and ship managers. How much money should they spend on this and what is need-to-have versus what is nice-to-have. Because we have a large installed base of more than 10,000 vessels we are able to provide some analytics that helps them to make choices.

Can you share any recent innovations or developments from Marlink that are particularly exciting or impactful into the maritime industry? Any case study or something like that?

I would like to then focus maybe on a couple of different things. One is the security side where we have developed a portfolio of services, including Universal Threat Management, Endpoint Detection and Resolution, all backed up by our Security Operations Centre, the SOC.

That is now a standardised portfolio that we’re pushing out in the maritime market and it’s getting a lot of interest from the client base because cyber is on top of their mind. Second we have customers, for instance, in the cruise segment, which really are focussed on the value of bundling different services.

This is using VSAT in combination with Starlink, in combination with OneWeb, in combination also with terrestrial 4G/5G communication. So by combining all of these , we can ensure that the ship is operating in the most efficient way possible at any time.

To cover a different aspect, I think it’s also very important to say that Marlink doesn’t have any favourite networks. We use the network that makes sense for each customer.

We have a customer PGS which operates survey ships that are uploading huge volumes of seismic data. They wanted to get more data across their channels and they looked into LEO as the channel, while we also looked into GEO VSAT.

And it turns out that for them, we could deliver groundbreaking uplink speeds over GEO because the data wasn’t sensitive to latency. That made GEO a much more affordable service compared to the volume-based packages which LEO comes with. So for different customers and for different types of applications, we apply whatever network which is most applicable for them.

You already mentioned about collaboration with other industry stakeholders. What are the main benefits that Marlink customers experience from your services? Can you provide an example of a successful implementation?

I think we’re different than most companies in a particular way. If you look at the large players today, they are consolidating their support operations in one location. We have decided to do the opposite. We think it’s very important that the customer support, project management, sales, field technicians are close to the customers.

So we’re decentralising it. We now have a fully manned support center here in Athens. We have one in Tokyo. We have one in Singapore. One in Bratislava for Europe. That increases our responsiveness. It increases the ownership to the customer problem by our crew. And it’s very helpful for the clients to be able to communicate with our staff in their own language.

Looking ahead, what are the future plans and vision for Marlink in the context of evolving maritime industry? I mean, okay, Starlink is one thing. What else is there?

There’s going to be more coming for sure. At Marlink, our job is to ensure that we help ship owners and ship managers to take advantage of new technologies and the capabilities that they bring.

A lot of effort goes into the digital journey of our client base: what is it that we can do for the industry with the new capabilities that we can offer? we have a service called BridgeLink which enables us to collect data from systems onboard and transmit that to the manager.

From a user point of view we think that when crew move from one vessel to another, they should be able to reuse their own account If they have a certain amount of data available. So we need to think about it both from a regulatory aspect and an operational aspect for the customer as a means to encouraging crew welfare.

We talked about PGS and the big data volumes they are shifting and another element of that which we think is coming fast is providing direct access to cloud.

In the past they were filling up hard drives and even using helicopters or support vessels to offload the data from the seismic vessel. We now do it directly into the cloud, which also means that the analytics can happen immediately and the boat can be redirected if they need to do another sweep.

If you have a vessel that costs you $250,000 per day to charter and you have chartered it for 30 days, the traditional setup would be that you get the data a week or a month later. By putting that data in the cloud the customer can get it immediately.

What would you like to tell to Cyprus and to the Greek shipping industry? I think a lot of the industry, particularly in Greece, is based on small family companies.

I agree, something like 70% of the total shipping market operates 10 vessels or fewer. That’s sometimes been a barrier to adopting technology. I think what is important is that those owners, is that they also now need to start embarking on the digital journey to take advantage there. Because if not, they will be outcompeted by others who see the opportunity that data can provide to make better commercial and safety decisions.

Security is a growing issue for these companies too. We know that older systems can be more at risk from security compromises and there is very tough regulation coming from the EU this year, it’s not something that can be avoided.

Finally I would say make sure you get the right advice from a solutions provider that doesn’t own any satellites. It could be Marlink, it could be someone else but start the journey. We will be more than happy to talk to you and support your strategy, even if you are a small family company with a very few vessels.