Internet at sea: Are you ready?

Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless message 115 years ago, on 13 May 1897, from Lavernock Point (South Wales) to Flat Holm Island, a distance of 6 kilometres. The message was:  “Are you ready”.  This event started a new industry: telecommunications.

The first company in the industry was The Marconi Company Ltd, providing solutions for land and sea based users. Since then many other companies have born, permitting communications in any corner of the earth.

We can divide the communications users looking at 2 characteristics: population density and mobility. With these 2 characteristics in mind we can segment users in the following areas:

  • Urban
  • Non-urban
  • No Mobility + Sea (e.g.: platforms for oil & gas)
  • Mobility + Sea (e.g: yachts, commercial vessels)
  • Mobility + Terrestrial/Air (e.g.: trains, aircraft, space stations)

If we focus on mobile + sea, the most common technologies used today, are the following:

  • VSAT (very-small-aperture terminal)
  • Inmarsat (Fleet Broadband and C)
  • GSM
  • Iridium
  • Thuraya
  • Globalstar
  • Wifi
  • SSB (MF/HF)
  • VHF

In the near future, a technology that will  be introduced in the communciations at sea market is related to Ka-band systems. There are various players that are developing solutions in this space (e.g.:  Intelsat’s EpicNGTelenor’s Thor-7, Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, and O3b). If we focus in Inmarsat, their goal is to be able to deliver download speeds of up to 50 megabits per second (Mbps), with upload speeds in the order of 5Mbps, via terminals ranging from 20 cm to 60 cm in size.  Inmarsat will invest $1.2 billion in the next 4 years to complete this project.

In each technology area the various suppliers are improving their products focusing on:

  • Reduction of hardware dimensions
  • Increase of data speeds
  • Decrease of service costs
  • Addition of new services
  • User experience improvements

The actual trend related to the increased usage of internet due to cloud services, and user friendly devices like the iPhone and other smart phones is producing the need of higher speeds on board, making the VSAT (Ku: 12–14 GHz) the present preferred solution because of: price, coverage, and bandwidth. With the VSAT technology, the users at sea can have the same experience of a urban user connected via a broadband solution.

VSAT technology  is a two-way satellite communication that uses  stabilized antennas with a dish that is smaller than 3 meters (typical dimension is 1 meter). VSAT access satellite in geosynchronous orbit to relay data from small remote earth stations. Earth stations are then connected via terrestrial connections, typically using optical fiber networks. Most of the satellites used for VSAT communications, have a geosynchronous orbit at zero inclination directly above the equator (geostationary orbit). Their altitude is approximately 36000km.

In 1985, Schlumberger Oilfield Research co-developed the world’s first Ku band VSATs with Hughes Aerospace to provide portable network connectivity for oil field drilling and exploration units. In the maritime industry was then Seatel one of the first companies to develop motorized antennas capable to track a satellite from a moving ship.

Most of today’s ships are provided with VSAT systems, that can track a satellite at 36000km, while moving with a speed of several knots, creating a broadband link capable to support rates of several megabits per second. In modern yachts you can read the latest news from your iPad, connected to the on board Wifi network, being in the middle of the sea. Since the first telecommunications experiences done by Marconi things have changed in an unimaginable way. In  115 years,  telecommunications evolution reshaped the way we live, work, play and learn. Are you ready for the next change?

Photo Credit: MY Elettra used by Marconi as test lab for wireless communications
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