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Marine Electronics & Communications

Marine Electronics & Communications

What shipowners should be asking satcoms service providers

Thu 18 May 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

What shipowners should be asking satcoms service providers
Malcolm McMaster : “VSAT can be a game-changer”

Globecomm Maritime president Malcolm McMaster sets the five key questions that shipmanagers, owners and operators should be asking potential VSAT suppliers

Shipowners and managers may become inundated with choices for maritime satellite communications options because of the large number of service providers in the market. This is despite the recent consolidation of companies that offer these solutions to shipping.

The competition has meant the price of megabytes of data and bandwidth has fallen.

But, according to Globecomm Maritime president Malcolm McMaster, the ability of these providers to deliver on a sustainable basis is coming into question.

It is not just about providing a link to ships. The delivery of satellite communications extends across fleets of vessels and shore based operations, all the way to the boardroom.

This means that the decision about which service provider and what type of satellite links to have should not just be about price.

“Questions of which network to choose, what it will deliver, how secure it will be and how to manage business and crew channels mean this is a conversation in which price is just one component,” commented Mr McMaster.

This is why Globecomm Maritime has set five questions that shipping companies should be asking before deploying these satellite links.

“These questions provide a foundation for understanding whether or not shipping companies should be doing business with that service provider,” he explained.

Five key questions

  • How secure are your provider’s operations?
  • Can the provider prioritise, segment and manage crew access?
  • Does the vendor offer a blend of connectivity and hardware?
  • What is the vendor’s business model?
  • Does the service supplier have a crystal ball?

In light of recent cyber attacks to land-based networks, the top question for vessel owners and managers should be:

How secure are your provider’s operations – can they help protect your assets from cyber threats?

Mr McMaster thinks cyber security is a real requirement for modern networks. Owners and managers need to be aware of the threats to their businesses and take steps to protect themselves.

“Buyers should be aware that the weak links in their defences are as likely to be human as digital,” he said.

“A service provider should be able to mitigate cyber risk by hardening these defences, managing the threats from hacking and conventional virus attacks.”

“Crew increasingly see the provision of internet access as a deciding factor in their choice of employer”

Service providers must also convince shipping companies that they have a cyber strategy and have put it into practice.

Crew welfare remains a top requirement for a VSAT service. Thus the second question should be:

Can the provider prioritise, segment and manage crew access without intervention from ship or shore?

“Crew communications makes good business sense, but is a more complex subject than it appears,” Mr McMaster commented. “Crew increasingly see the provision of internet access as a deciding factor in their choice of employer.”

There are technical, connectivity and content challenges for the ship master, owner, manager and superintendent because of the rapid expansion of crew services.

“Access needs to be hands-off for the master but subject to priority controls for business traffic,” Mr McMaster explained. Crew welfare services should be:

  • WiFi-enabled for privacy
  • accessible via a dedicated application
  • separate from the ship’s data plan
  • provide managed accounts for crew and options for shipowner and seafarer payments.

Ships need flexibility in connectivity as some vessels will use more data than others. Owners should therefore be asking:

Does the vendor offer a range of connectivity and hardware services in a range of price points?

Mr McMaster explained that VSAT “can be a game-changer,” but it is more expensive than L-band. Shipowners and managers should understand what they need to achieve from satellite communications before making a choice.

“VSAT certainly provides an upgrade from L-band systems, but be sure of what you are getting, and whether you really need it,” Mr McMaster advised.

Once that decision is made, then owners should be asking:

What is the vendor’s business model?

They should be conducting due diligence of the service provider to ensure that it is financially viable. “There are a lot of vendors in maritime, especially in VSAT, and it makes no sense to risk upfront investment in three to five years of equipment leasing if there are any doubts about their sustainability,” Mr McMaster explained.

“When prices are too low, buyers should understand that the risks can outweigh the benefits”

“If packages offering hardware, connectivity, installation, content and support at very low prices sound too good to be true, then apply common sense.” He said that communications is becoming more mission-critical to shipping, and the importance of support is increasing.

“Low costs quickly become high if the vessel misses a change of orders, so support must be 24/7 all year round and multi-lingual. When prices are too low, buyers should understand that the risks can outweigh the benefits.”

Shipping companies will be living with a long-term contract with a satellite communications provider and should be asking:

Does the service supplier have a crystal ball – or does it just have its fingers crossed?

Mr McMaster thinks this relates to the approaching wave of new communications technologies and applications. Some of these will be enabled by high throughput satellites as they are commissioned. “Buyers should be asking their provider about bandwidth, speed and capacity,” he said. These parameters of service are likely to change over time for operational and crew requirements.

“Shipowners have much to consider when planning how to get from the present to the future of shipping, including whether their connectivity provider is committed to the market for the long term,” Mr McMaster concluded.


Malcolm McMaster has more than 20 years of experience in satellite communications and digital technology. He has been president of Globecomm Maritime since 2011. Prior to that he was president of Telaurus Communications, which merged with Globecomm Systems Inc. Since 1994, he has held positions in SolidStreaming Inc, Motorola and Sabert Corp.

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