Maritime satellite gets with the programme

Maritime communications spent a long time being of little interest to most people. Beyond safety requirements, it took the dotcom boom to generate a significant uptick in activity, as software entrepreneurs discovered this ‘untapped’ market.

That ended with the dotcoms going belly up, but the Rubicon had been crossed. There was now a clear realisation that connectivity held the key to better productivity and perhaps even a more efficient supply chain.

Once again, the market was overtaken by events – namely the best earnings many had ever seen – and suddenly no-one cared about saving fuel or improving efficiency, because rates were through the roof.

Another crash followed and suddenly we are back to the future. This time, the recession looks longer, deeper and likely to claim more scalps. The answer? Better connectivity for increased efficiency and improved crew retention.

It’s a change that has not gone un-noticed by the analysts at NSR, whose Brad Grady hosted the big data panel session at the recent DigitalShip CIO Forum in Oslo.

“There is a definite increase in activity and the adoption criteria are expanding. Prices are cheaper, applications are becoming more sophisticated and the number of vessels as good candidates is increasing,” he says. With increased demolition of older ships the newer, better-wired ones are looking for efficiencies.

NSR updated its maritime sector report in May and he says the big change from last year to this is the uptick in merchant fleet activity in terms of new installs, retrofits and upgrades.

“There’s not necessarily an improvement in the economics [of shipping] but its finally coming to an understanding that this is the reality we are living in. Like all processes, it’s about putting something in place that will bear fruit,” he says.

On a longer time horizon he sees interest in the opportunities delivered by HTS and an expected increase in bandwidth uptake. Even with a cheaper fuel environment, owners are still feeling pressure to invest in optimisation and potential efficiencies.

In part the pressure is from the providers who have already delivered a huge amount of bandwidth to the cruise sector and are targeting maritime over offshore, which is also struggling to make money.

“We’re not expecting a tremendous amount of growth in the offshore sector over the next couple of years; growing demand there will be a challenge. Once oil stabilises we might see a return to resources with higher extraction costs and a similar investment in new technologies,” he suggests.

The emerging story in energy is non-geostationary HTS capacity; lower orbiting high capacity services which have much lower latency and therefore an opportunity to support emerging concepts like increased automation with reduced manning. Grady says these could support attempts by oil companies to reduce costs by cutting personnel in favour of high interval reporting.

“The question we don’t have an answer for yet is how many Non-GEO HTS megabits per second will you have to buy from these providers? If you can buy in nominal amounts at low prices then Non-GEO HTS Capacity could be a real game changer. It could have a tremendous impact on the way the market works.”

He thinks the alternative scenario for Non-GEO HTS capacity, which operators would probably prefer, whereby they sell dedicated beam capacity would “price Non GEO-HTS out of most markets, it won’t expand the addressable market size”.

For HTS capacity in geostationary orbit from the likes of Intelsat, SES, Inmarsat, and others, a similar story holds true, will end-users pay a little more and get a whole lot more Mbps, or can they pay less and get the same (or a few more) Mbps?

The bigger challenge is persuading shipowners that greater bandwidth, especially HTS capacity, is going to make enough difference to be worth the investment. Grady agrees this is perfect time for suppliers to get in front of owners but they will have to come with new and increasingly competitive pricing models.

Either way, he thinks HTS will be a higher end market play, but it doesn’t stop him being enthusiastic about its potential. “I don’t think there are technical barriers, it’s more about end-user education. Five years down road, when all the variables are known about HTS , it will be ‘why did we doubt how awesome it was going to be?’”

That doesn’t stop NSR seeing plenty of life in L-Band MSS though. He notes that if Iridium succeeds in getting IMO approval to provide GMDSS then together with its NEXT broadband platform, it will have a package that will be very commercially appealing. “MSS has been a doom and gloom story for a couple of years now, but there’s plenty of life left in it.”

Despite the industry being widely split on whether more consolidation is likely or even desirable in satellite, NSR sees the potential for this as well as greater price competition. Panasonic’s acquisition of ITC is a good example of the former, where a provider with growing aeronautical business who looked at maritime and saw an opportunity, he says.

As Intelsat, SES, KVH and others up their game, to some extent the pressure will be on Inmarsat as the maritime incumbent, to deliver its GX service with the same success it has sold L-Band services.

Part of that success will depend to what extent it opens up GX and allows SPs to act as Virtual Network Operators – enabling them to add their own applications and value and sell to whomever they like – and how much it tries to lock the service down.

“Inmarsat has always been simple from the SP standpoint and there’s a lot to be said for terminal ubiquity, with integrated L-Band for back-up. For some segments we’re pretty bullish on Ka-Band in merchant shipping.”

Inmarsat and KVH have been playing catch up with each other on adding value to their services, with entertainment and learning content available over both, in addition to more typical business applications. As if to underscore their symbiosis, the two announced a cross-selling deal instead of a rumoured merger.

Even though he sees greater levels of activity, Grady is less sure that the addressable market is changing as much and as fast as some claim. “How do you define the size and scale of that is really the question. For example, there are a lot of fishing vessels but their requirements are small narrowband solutions. Can you really convince these users to switch over to higher throughput?”

Operators are keen to talk up the potential, but Grady thinks for SPs it’s still a difficult conversation. Even industrial fishermen run a tight ship and don’t have much time to watch television. The evolution path is reminiscent of merchant maritime.

“The trick for SPs is finding right mix and that might not be streaming video. It could be more like upgrading equipment so they can do email and integrate personal devices. In Africa telecoms skipped wires and went straight to wireless. In fishing, you have to go right to value-add and work backwards from there.”

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