Cobham Satcom has designed its antennas to be deployed on ships without needing a crane and for swift configuration with vessel networks
VSAT service providers and integrators are challenged by the growing demand levels that come from global fleets adopting enterprise-grade communications at a record pace. Because of this, increasing the speed and efficiency of an antenna installation is a key factor in a VSAT project.
Cobham Satcom director of maritime product management Matt Galston thinks shipowners and service providers want lightweight and compact antennas that can link with high throughput satellite networks. Examples of these are Cobham’s Sailor 60 VSAT range for Ku-band and Ka-band.
“Technology developments, such as the single cable solution and the highly automated approach to onboard system calibration and commissioning have had a significant impact on overall installation time,” Mr Galston told Marine Electronics & Communications. “VSAT service providers and their engineers have used these features to execute large fleet upgrade projects in record time.
There are around 27,000 vessels worldwide carrying VSAT antennas for C-, Ku-, or Ka-band. In comparison, there are more than 60,000 ships with smaller L-band communications, such as Inmarsat’s FleetBroadband. This indicates the scale of installations to come, even if only a fraction of these ships adopt VSAT.
Mr Galston said that “2,000-3,000 vessels around the world have signed agreements to receive new VSAT solutions, but have to wait.” He thinks the reason for the backlog is that there are not enough engineers and “simply not enough hours in the day” to work through them. Other reasons are the complexity of installation, costs of services and equipment.
“Implementing a VSAT solution takes longer than installing FleetBroadband,” he explained that it only takes a SIM card to activate a FleetBroadband “but, with VSAT, the process is more involved.”
VSAT antennas are larger than FleetBroadband terminals, requiring installers to hire a crane for typical 1 m diameter systems. That is why Cobham designed its Sailor 60GX, 600Ku and 600Ka to be installed without the need for a crane. Its small size and light weight contribute to this improvement but size is not the only installation challenge, he commented.
“Careful integration between VSAT and back-up platforms can be complex”
Incorporating a new VSAT into the network requires co-ordination between the onboard technician and the service provider’s network operations centre. “Careful integration between VSAT and back-up platforms can also be complex,” said Mr Galston. “There is simply more to vessel connectivity than there used to be.”
Technical enhancements and improving execution processes will have an impact on installation complexity. Major satellite service providers are collaboration with system manufacturers. For instance, Inmarsat has partnered with Cobham to standardise Fleet Xpress (Ka-band) hardware packages and define pre-installation on-air testing standards.
Inmarsat has also assumed responsibility for co-ordination, delivery and execution of onboard installation across global fleets. “Other major service providers are heading in a similar direction,” said Mr Galston.
Cobham provides quick installation through its global network of factory-certified partners. “By standardising on complete, preconfigured above- and below-deck hardware packages, we are succeeding in making Fleet Xpress as simple as FleetBroadband,” he said. “From an end customer perspective, the solution arrives on time, installs quickly and has little to no impact on vessel turnaround time.”
When installation is standardised and simplified, shipowners can use VSAT hardware to rollout digital transformations across their fleets. “Securing fleet-wide, fixed-price, always-on connectivity is essential for the maritime industry to evolve,” said Mr Galston. “That means VSAT adoption is ultimately a business requirement.”
On average it has taken 24 months for a fleet of 150-200 ships to be fully updated to VSAT. “Condensing that rollout phase into as little as two or three fiscal quarters enhances the business case for investment,” he explained. Reducing installation time will help shipping companies along “the path to realising the operational, commercial and financial benefits of digital transformation faster than ever before.”