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Modem software is holding back Ka-band commercial roll-out

Wed 10 Feb 2016 by Martyn Wingrove

Modem software is holding back Ka-band commercial roll-out

Software on new modem technology is delaying the commercial roll-out of the widely anticipated high throughput satellite services to shipping. Issues still need to be ironed out on iDirect modems before satellite service providers can formerly introduce high throughput Ka-band VSAT services to shipowners and vessel operators.

Telenor Satellite and Inmarsat have been testing spot beam Ka-band technology in the maritime industry for several months, but are still unable to introduce these services to the whole of the industry. This is despite their forecasts that the maritime world will be using Ka-band to enhance daily operations and seafarer connectivity. Service providers promised to significantly improve bandwidth speeds for all types of ships and offshore support vessels, to support enhanced crew welfare packages and data analysis systems. But, the shipping industry is still waiting for the formal launch of Ka-band services.

Telenor launched its Thor 7 satellite in April 2015 and completed in-orbit testing by July that year. The Norwegian satellite operator started testing Ka-band VSAT on ships in September and was hoping to have everything ready for commercial launch before the beginning of this year.

However, this had to be pushed back because of software issues, said Telenor product and services director Jan Hetland. He said there are software stability issues with the iDirect modems, and test users currently indicate about 70 per cent satisfaction with the service. He also said modems sometimes crashed when subjected to heavy traffic loads. He added that this was down to the iDirect Velocity service platform that Ka-band spot beam services use. Mr Hetland hopes the issues will be sorted out and user satisfaction will be closer to 100 per cent by the end of this month, due to advances made in recent weeks, allowing Telenor to commercially launch the regional service.

A variety of service providers have trialled Telenor Ka-band services on ferries, tankers, fishing vessels and container ships in the North Sea and Mediterranean, which are the prime markets for Thor 7 Ka-band beams. Airbus Defence and Space has been testing the beam switching and performance at its teleport in Eik, Norway. Head of maritime services, Tore Morten Olsen said the company had had its own share of software issues with the modems and found speed tests were limited by what the modems could process in terms of maximum speed.  Tests have highlighted issues with modem configuration, software and beam switching, which have been overcome. "Some of the issues referred by Mr Hetland were visible for us in the tests we did, but were quickly corrected," Mr Olsen said.

His company is also testing the Ka-band services at the Eik teleport for Inmarsat’s Global Xpress service. Inmarsat commissioned its I-5 constellation of satellites last year and had also hoped to commence commercial Ka-band services by the beginning of this year. Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout recently said commercial Global Xpress services would not be ready until March or April this year. He did not explain the delay. The next test of the iDirect platform and modems will come from the commissioning of Intelsat’s EpicNG Ku-band spot beam services.

The satellite industry needs to overcome the issues with modem software permanently to ensure shipping can use Ka-band VSAT for enhanced crew welfare and enable greater data analysis. Future technical developments in automated shipping and delivering social media to seafarers depends on it.