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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Technology pushes cruise ship connectivity to record levels

Wed 03 Jan 2018 by Martyn Wingrove

Technology pushes cruise ship connectivity to record levels
MSC Seaside broke the maritime VSAT record in December 2017

Satellite and VSAT antenna technology is helping cruise ship operators to ramp up throughput to meet passenger and crew demands for onboard internet connectivity

Developments in high throughput satellites and VSAT hardware are increasing broadband communications capacity for passengers on cruise ships. Guests and crew can use onboard wifi to connect their mobile devices to the internet for social media and other online services over a new generation of satellites.

Internet connectivity is delivered via wide beams of C-band and Ku-band on geostationary satellites or Ka-band from Inmarsat’s Global Xpress constellation, which was introduced in 2016. In the tropics, cruise ships can access Ka-band beams from O3B satellites, which are operated by SES.

In January, the operator made another high throughput satellite service available to passenger shipping. SES now provides Ku-band high-throughput spot beams on the SES-15 satellite, which was launched in May 2017. Since then, it has been tested and is now ready to provide coverage around the coasts of North America.

According to SES Networks’ leader for the global maritime segment Stephen Conley, two other high-throughput satellites will be launched and commissioned this year. SES-12 will provide spot beams of Ku-band over Asia and the Middle East and SES-14 will deliver broadband over the Atlantic Ocean, Mr Conley told Marine Electronics & Communications.

These satellites will be integrated into SES’ existing constellation of geostationary satellites, which have wide beams of C-band and Ku-band. The three new satellites will provide additional throughput in regions of high demand. “We are building a manageable and robust platform for our channel partners to use with their value-added services,” said Mr Conley.

“We are building a manageable and robust platform for our channel partners to use with their value-added services”

SES is also investing in the O3B constellation over the next five years under its mPower global plan. This will involve investing billions of dollars in a new satellites to “significantly improve connectivity in Ka-band” said Mr Conley. Boeing Satellite Systems will build at least seven satellites that could be launched in 2021 and held in medium Earth orbit (MEO).

The O3B constellation will have 30,000 shapeable and steerable beams that can be shifted and switched in real-time to align with areas of high demand. O3B mPower will provide coverage to an area of nearly 400M km2, which represents about 80% of the Earth’s surface. SES already operates 12 MEO O3B satellites. It is launching eight more MEO satellites over the next two years to increase the existing constellation to 20.

During 2017, satellite operator Intelsat also expanded its services to passenger ships by commissioning its EpicNG satellites – a constellation with high throughput spot beams in Ku-band and C-band. This has allowed cruise ship owners to increase connectivity to levels never previously thought possible.

For example, MSC Cruises has used EpicNG satellites to provide record-breaking VSAT connectivity on its new cruise ships. It has achieved more than 500 Mbps on its newbuild MSC Seaside over Marlink's Sealink VSAT. This bandwidth was provided to passengers, crew and media during the vessel’s launch service in Monfalcone, Italy, on 30 November and during its maiden voyage to the naming ceremony in Miami, Florida, on 21 December. For more details on Intelsat EpicNG, click here.

During normal operations VSAT bandwidth for the whole ship will not be as high as this, but will still be around the 100 Mbps level. MSC Cruises will require more VSAT systems as it is investing in more Seaside-series ships: Fincantieri is building a third one of these for delivery in 2021 and another to come into service in 2023 under a €1.8Bn (US$2.1Bn) investment campaign.

Antenna technology

To achieve high bandwidths, cruise ship owners need to install the latest VSAT maritime stabilised antennas and associated hardware, such as terminals and wifi routers. For connectivity efficiency, passenger ship operators should install antennas that can switch between frequency bands.

Cobham Satcom has developed a high power integrated maritime antenna (IMA) that can automatically switch between C-band and Ku-band. It has a switchable version of the 2.4 m Sea Tel 9711 IMA series antennas. Cobham Satcom business manager for large VSAT, Kirby Nell, said cruise ships use C-band for reliable global connectivity and Ku-band connectivity for the higher throughput applications.

A switchable sub reflector on the antenna meets these requirements. This allows the modem to use the ship’s location to dictate the band to be used and therefore the connection speed available, Mr Nell told Marine Electronics & Communications.

He explained that further development was needed because of the emergence of high-throughput satellites with spot beams of C, Ku and Ka-band from services such as Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, SES’s O3B and Telenor’s Thor 7 satellites. Part of this development included producing higher power amplifiers on antennas to match the use of more powerful radio frequencies.

“We have seen the base system move from a 40 W for C-band with a 16 W Ku-band amplifier to 250 W for C-band with a 125 W Ku-band amplifier as the standard solution,” Mr Nell explained. This is because customers use larger portions of satellite bandwidth to increase their throughput on the satellite communications links, he added.

Cobham Satcom has developed a method of upgrading existing Sea Tel 9711 IMA antennas with high power radio frequency amplifiers that form part of customising kits.

Future developments for Cobham Satcom will depend on the launch of higher-power low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that can provide Ku-band connectivity. OneWeb is the closest to building a constellation of these satellites for all maritime users.

In response to this, Cobham Satcom will need to develop new antennas and custom kits for existing units, said Mr Nell. He said these would need to be flexible solutions that can make use of multiple bands at multiple different frequencies. Custom kits include radio frequency feeds, amplifiers and supporting software to adjust Sea Tel antennas.


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