Unleashing digital innovation in the third era of satellite connectivity

Monday 27, March 2023

Digitalisation in the maritime industry has developed in step with the available connectivity; now new technologies promise to enable a completely new level of innovation, writes Tore Morten Olsen, President, Maritime, Marlink

The evolution of satellite connectivity and the progress of digitalisation are closely correlated and the latest advances in connectivity look set to unleash a new era in terms of what is possible over satellite for remote users.

The last 20 years of digital solutions delivered over satellite networks can be generally divided into three phases; scarcity; availability and ubiquity.

The first phase can be defined as the era of dial-up connectivity. User behaviour was defined by the high cost and great difficulty of getting online over satellite (or even making voice calls). Charged by the minute, users had to try and accomplish as many tasks as possible while coping with generally slow connections and high latency on the majority of available networks.

The very low throughput possible, usually only available as a best effort service with, meant that opportunities were limited to basic file transfers and emails, with browsing confined to ‘light’ versions of web pages stripped down to text only, in additional to basic voice services.

Even then, cyber risks were emerging, with users adopting first generation firewalls mainly in the form of basic content filters, but with software installs and updates mainly dispatched from shore on CDs or USB drives.

As connectivity advanced in everyday life and mobility grew as a business application, so the same demand began to filter into maritime. The logic was undeniable. In a market where information is everything, the risks of owning or chartering a $50m vessel with a $100m cargo and receiving only scant daily information made little sense.

Progressive investment in satellite capacity meant that slowly, the maritime industry entered the second phase of connectivity, a slow conversion to the era of ‘always-on’ in place of off/on.

This change might initially have been driven by a perception of business needs, but the real demand lay in the desire of crews to get online and stay connected for longer. The additional capacity meant that connectivity could be provisioned with performance guarantees, though the majority of the maritime market still relied on best effort services.

The growing need for security meant that despite requiring considerable bandwidth, application and firmware updates as well as anti-virus software was increasingly available over the air, direct to shipboard systems.

By today’s standards, throughput remained low and latency very often high but the changes to user behaviour were significant. Ships and other assets could send and receive small amounts of data all the time. The resulting higher airtime bills also prompted users to invest in network management tool to control traffic priority, preferences and when systems should communicate with shore.

A hint of the era to come was felt with the entry of 4G and LTE services in the maritime sector. This made sense for seafarers who travelled with a bagful of SIM cards and the coverage available was often faster with latency lower and could be less costly than equivalent satellite services.

Now the maritime and energy markets are moving into a third age of satellite connectivity. This change has been driven by a combination of latent demand and disruptive technology.

Shipowners and charterers, OEMs, vendors and crew have always desired more and faster bandwidth but the trade-off between cost and user experience kept actual usage at lower levels than reflected the desire for data and information.

With the development of ‘New LEO’ satellite capacity, offering very fast connectivity and low latency, the maritime industry has the service it has always desired. The reality is not a case of ‘game over’ however. New LEO services promise a breath-taking increase in performance but this is generally offered on a best effort basis.

That means that for operators with business-critical commercial and compliance applications, a combination of New LEO with guaranteed VSAT bandwidth and a high level of network management will be required both centrally but also at the edge to optimise the user experience.

There is no denying the impact that new LEO services will have on maritime. Blended with guaranteed bandwidth services, the potential of cloud-based business applications and applications depending on real time data, including collaborative workflow and video tools becomes a reality, combined with high quality crew connectivity.

Cyber security tools have evolved further to manage threats on a completely different level of complexity. With so much data traffic potentially moving back and forth, owners are adopting tools including endpoint security to manage network access on a device level and unified threat management to proactively detect and control emerging threats.

The development of technology – and connectivity in particular – enables a progressive adoption of new business practices and applications. The shipping industry’s exposure to economic cycles, unpredictable fuel prices and most recently the need to meet decarbonisation targets, means that its assets must become smarter and more connected.

We saw during the Pandemic the power of remote tools to connect assets and people – and drive demand for bandwidth and applications to new levels of user experience. The emergence of new tools came alongside the migration to remote working, monitoring and data gathering which had not been fully exploited until then. A mindset change happened, moving digitalisation enablement from a cost to investment perspective.

The increasing digitalisation of the industry has coincided with the emergence of New LEO services offering high throughputs and low latency as a catalyst for this process. The result is that shipping should be able to move at a more rapid speed towards sustainable and more efficient operations.

By providing the high throughput, low latency connectivity maritime has been deprived of until now, the third era of connectivity will power a paradigm shift. Instead of installing an increased amount of hardware on the assets themselves, it will enable operators to move it away from the vessels and utilise cloud-based services with much higher levels of cyber-security.