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Exclusive Inmarsat interview: Cost-cutting apps are coming for ships

Wed 21 Jun 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

Exclusive Inmarsat interview: Cost-cutting apps are coming for ships
Inmarsat’s Global Xpress satellites are controlled from its London, UK base

Ship operators will be able to slash their operating costs using satellite-delivered applications, says Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout

Shipowners, managers and operators will be able to use an increasing array of online applications to reduce fuel costs, improve ship safety and improve vessel performance. Inmarsat will be delivering these applications to shipowners through its Fleet Xpress hybrid VSAT solution.

According to Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout the Fleet Xpress service gateway will provide an ecosystem of online applications and content to improve vessel efficiency. There will also be applications covering safety, crew welfare, cyber security and regulatory compliance.

Speaking exclusively to Marine Electronics & Communications, Mr Spithout also outlined Inmarsat’s future plans for the US$1.6 billion Global Xpress network and for a new generation of satellites that could (in MEC’s opinion) represent an overall investment of another US$1 billion. Overall, Inmarsat is investing in the satellites, VSAT service engineers and the service platform.

“The future applications on Fleet Xpress will cover improving operating efficiency, engine monitoring, safety, cyber security and tackling fuel consumption,” Mr Spithout explained. “Application providers and shipmanagers that have their own applications for managing vessels and training can use the Fleet Xpress ecosystem.”

This will enable shipowners to use these applications across the fleet for reducing operating costs, crew training, condition-based maintenance and enterprise resource management. These will be delivered through network service devices that are a software component of network gateways that are already installed on ships using Fleet Xpress.

This is part of the vision that Mr Spithout has for the future of communications, with software-based network services interacting with intelligent below-deck equipment and VSAT antennas that connect to the world’s most advanced satellites to deliver high bandwidth for crew welfare, business communications and applications that will be developed by third party service providers.

Inmarsat is testing gateways and network service devices to enable these applications to be delivered to ships. Mr Spithout expects that they will be ready for commercial shipping during the third quarter of this year. “We will have secondary bandwidth that application providers can buy and then offer services to vessels,” he explained.

"We will have secondary bandwidth that application providers can buy and then offer services to vessels”

He expects engine manufacturers to be among the first to purchase bandwidth and lease it back to the shipowner to enable remote engine monitoring, analytics and diagnostics. “Some applications are bandwidth hungry and will need the extra capacity,” Mr Spithout continued. Shipmanagers may also want to purchase secondary bandwidth to deliver their own services, such as training applications and cloud-based management solutions.

Another feature being tested in gateways is dynamic bandwidth. “An owner or master may want to call for more bandwidth over a short period of time, such as an hour, for video conferences or telemedicine,” he explained. “This will trigger more bandwidth from the satellite.”

These developments are for the near future, whereas Inmarsat’s investment in service engineers and installation support is for present shipowner demands. The London-headquartered company has more than quadrupled its ability to meet high demand for its Fleet Xpress service by increasing the number of ports where a complete service installation with a flat fee is available.

These services are required for Inmarsat to meet the needs of shipowners to enhance satellite communications on their vessels. There are more than 10,000 ships committed to have Fleet Xpress Ka-band satellite communications installed, said Mr Spithout. To meet this demand, Inmarsat has boosted the number of ports where installation services are available from six to 33. This includes 12 ports in Asia Pacific, 11 in Europe, the Middle-East and Africa, and 10 ports in the Americas. The installation work will be carried out by Inmarsat-certified engineers for a fixed fee

Mr Spithout told MEC that demand is so high that there are around 250 Fleet Xpress additions each month. These include completely new installations and ships migrating to Fleet Xpress from the Ku-band hybrid service XpressLink. He cited the role played by hardware partners Cobham Satcom, Intellian Technologies and Japan Radio Co, and service agreements such as the one recently announced with Radio Holland, as key to enabling a fast industry transition to high speed connectivity with Fleet Xpress.

"With the new installation network we are able to respond to the accelerating demand for the service"

It takes around 60 days from ordering Fleet Xpress to the installation of the VSAT equipment, but this should fall once Inmarsat has certified more engineers, said Mr Spithout. “With the new installation network we are able to respond to the accelerating demand for the service,” he added. Inmarsat has estimated that its commitment to include more ports could be worth up to US$5,000 per vessel to a prospective customer, because it effectively waives fees that would otherwise be levied for preparation, administration and activation, installer travel costs and waiting time.

The company is also ensuring that those waiting to convert from FleetBroadband to Fleet Xpress can benefit from enhanced operations and crew communications immediately. Mr Spithout said that Inmarsat is offering a 20 per cent subscription discount on FleetBroadband upgrades to 20GB or 40GB plans.

“The major expansion in installation services and these new incentives signal Inmarsat’s commitment to offer action rather than words in enabling shipping’s early digitalisation,” said Mr Spithout. “The shift to Fleet Xpress is becoming decisive, consolidating Inmarsat’s position as the driving force in the global maritime sector for connectivity at sea.”

Inmarsat satellite investments

Inmarsat has ordered satellites for a sixth-generation constellation, while still building its Global Xpress network. Two satellites were ordered for launch from 2020 with double the Ka-band capacity of the fifth generation (I-5) constellation. They will each have huge L-band payloads in order to vastly increase the capacity for FleetBroadband.

In the second quarter of this year, Inmarsat launched a fourth I-5 satellite and ordered a fifth one, from Thales Alenia Space, pushing investment in Global Xpress close to US$1.8 billion.

This satellite is scheduled to be launched in 2019 when the payload should slot seamlessly into the existing high speed global broadband network. The I-5 F4 satellite, manufactured by Boeing’s Network & Space Systems, is being commissioned and tested and should begin commercial operations in the fourth quarter of this year. Its coverage increases Ka-band capacity available to ships in Europe, the Middle East and India.

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