Tag Archives: EPIC NG

When shipping and satellites collide

It’s a strange experience to be at a trade show and know perhaps 2% of the people rather than 60-70% but that is the experience at Satellite 2014, where the communications industry is continuing to mount a charm offensive on their maritime counterparts.

The first day of the show yesterday saw the Global VSAT Forum host a day of sessions including maritime-focussed panels looking at the maritime opportunity.

All the big beasts were in attendance and if the audience was sometimes rather less enthused than one might have expected the range was broad, from future regulation and safety services to the ‘super-segments’ of cruise and energy, through regional VSAT services and even a little shout for good old L-Band.

One thing is certain though, all the operators and their service partners see maritime as an untapped market that is ripe for more coverage and connectivity. This in itself is not news, but when Cobham’s Jens Ewerling said they were building 25,000sq m of manufacturing capacity for maritime terminals and antennas you get a sense of the complementary moves being made that will balance the investments in GX, EPIC-NG, Thor-7 et al.

Given that competition is so strong and that the land grab for customers and real estate is really only just getting going, there was polite deference to Inmarsat and the potential of GX to follow on from FleetBroadband for users that want to upgrade to VSAT over the next few years.

Telenor’s Lars Janols stressed that Thor-7 was not designed to compete with GX and that the ability to roam Ka-Ka and across bands is a long term wish, though not one he expects to see soon. Later same day, Intelsat’s James Collet pushed the line that EPIC would provide the fast focussed throughput in regions where it was needed, in addition to more measured global coverage.

Asked how much interoperability he thought was enough, iDirect’s Eric Watko came out in favour of platforms that enabled roaming rather than the ‘closed architecture’ of the GX Service Enablement Platform, but he said his company still wanted to work with Inmarsat if possible.

Whether this would also result in an ‘all-band’ antenna is less certain. Ewerling suggested that though possible, the real question was whether users would be prepared to pay three times what they are paying now for single-band units.

This outbreak of peace doesn’t mean there aren’t problems elsewhere COMSYS’ Simon Bull rounded on Iridium (confusingly on a VSAT panel despite being an L-Band operator) for its high latency despite being a LEO operator. Iridium’s Brian Pemberton said the company had installed additional gateways in Norway and Alaska to improve the service.

Pemberton had a surprising card to play though. Iridium NEXT, its planned next generation L-Band system is designed to host Ka antennas that the company could lease to another operator that wished to run a global Ka-band network. And so another plank in the Ka v Ku band argument gets knock away. Pemberton said Iridium’s links to VSAT providers for which his system is used as a backup might provide fruitful opportunities for collaboration.

O3B’s Ashok Rao got an even rougher ride, but he insisted that an eight month delay to service start was not a big deal and that banner cruise customer RCCL would be delighted with the service when it got up and running. He also said the operator would look for energy business and would be ready to launch its next satellites by June.

O3B might be the current whipping boy for the risks attached to innovative services, but Bull wondered if the real problem might not be that maritime satellite was suffering from a lack of innovation. Where were the innovative services, the Teledesics, [and ICOs and Connexion by Boeing] that promised so much.

Well, for the most part, we know the answer to that one, but the real question is where the industry might be in 20-30 years’ time – by which he meant satellite not shipping.

You would assume more speed but really the answer was more about flexibility, efficient use of spectrum, optimised signals and better managed connectivity, to get more from what can be delivered rather than simply promising more and more.

That might mean a different kind of upgrade – from infrastructure that was designed to support a PTT or LESO model and away fro processes to manage capacity that are somewhat behind where the industry is going in terms of quality and reliability of the signal.

But wouldn’t that mean a change in the risk profile of the industry asked Bull? Yes, nodded the satellite men, without obliging any further information for what that might mean for them or, indeed the user.

‘Following a ship around with a satellite beam is not a business’

In part two of my conversation with consultant, analyst and blogger Tim Farrar, we dive a little deeper into the undergrowth: what the HTS upgrade path looks like and how to tell perception from reality, how the recent competition stacks up to the incumbent and what new opportunities may be out there for those prepared to seek new markets.

MI: I’ve had conversations recently with end users who have said, ‘I’m really interested in HTS but I sure as hell don’t want to be first through the gate, I want to see it up and running, I want other people to be signed up and using it before I consider moving. Again I’m speculating but I’m assuming that Inmarsat will make it attractive financially for users to upgrade to GX but are there other drivers too?

TF: “For new customers, every VSAT terminal they install from now is upgradeable, straightforwardly. When you go back to the investor day last October they said, ‘We’ve got 20% of our business plan committed and they included all 1100 ShipEquip VSAT terminals in that. Despite the fact that only 300 of those have actually gone to XpressLink.

“Probably only 100-200 of them actually have a compatible terminal, maybe even less than that last October because the compatible terminals have only been available for a short period of time. So quite how you square that circle and you say to those people, they [Inmarsat] will turn off Ku-Band by whatever date is an interesting question.

“But certainly, from a financial point of view, Inmarsat’s sending the message to its investors that it intends to cut back its Ku-Band leases as rapidly as possible so it can shift people over to its own system and obviously have a dramatically higher gross margin.”

Do you find it as hard as I do to make like for like comparisons? Inmarsat talks about 32,000 active FB terminals, KVH talks about terminals shipped. So it’s actually quite difficult to really get hard usage analysis of who’s really using what beyond what the airtime vendors are telling us or am I being too naïve about that?

“The VSAT industry has always been one where people tend to exaggerate a little bit and they like to tell you shipped or committed or whatever rather than actively revenue-generating terminals.

“People have their own definitions and it’s one of those things that’s self-reinforcing. If you think you’ve got a bigger market share than your competitor and your competitor is saying a number that is stretching it slightly then you’re going to have to stretch your number a little bit too.

“So people will quote numbers that are what they hope for when they’ve got through their backlog rather than what they actually have that are revenue generating right now.”

Certainly the view from Inmarsat seems to be that they are keeping their heads down and to some extent downplaying the penetration of XpressLink and the impact they expect Global Xpress to have.

“That’s because the 40-50% [market share] figure can’t be reconciled with reality (laughs). I don’t know how they came out with that. [At last year’s investor day, Inmarsat claimed to have won 50% of all high-end VSAT contracts] it’s a number that appears to relate to a selected period of time excluding KVH and a bunch of other things.

“I think they tried to downplay that number just because it’s hard to reconcile with reality over a more extended period of time. And is excluding KVH from your numbers the right way to go? Especially given the issue of where GX is going to be pitched in terms of the low end versus the high end and all those sort of things.”

“There hasn’t been necessarily huge amounts of growth in the VSAT business, it’s been a little bit slow. It’s not easy at that high end of the business either, at least in merchant shipping due to the economic climate.”

And as people like Roger Adamson have said recently there’s either two ways, either to fulfill crew calling demand or get in at the boardroom level and sell to a much higher level.

“Yes that’s right and at the board level, it’s a very difficult. They have many, many preoccupations right now other than just details of how you implement your communications.”

You touched previously on Inmarsat’s other competitors, Iridium and Thuraya. I don’t hear so much from Iridium these days but from what I do hear is that people like using Iridium OpenPort because it’s cheap and simple and the crew can install it but reliability is an issue. For Thuraya, they have a strong play albeit regionally, so I guess my question is, how far from death is the legacy L-Band market. In fact does it actually get a bit of a new lease of life if the others can carve themselves out a nice niche there?

“Well the question is how far down the spend level is VSAT going to go? I guess you could say, a KVH solution at $600 has some place in the mix. But the reality is I think that I see sub-thousand dollar a month customers being dominated by L-Band for the foreseeable future.

“But yes, OpenPort is a good cheap and cheerful solution, it has had some challenges, Thuraya has tried to become more of a FleetBroadband competitor. It has tried before and it didn’t quite work out but I’m sure that they’ll try again with another maritime broadband-type product on a regional basis.

“And obviously IridiumNext could give Iridium something more directly comparable to FleetBroadband so I think there’s potential for competition to FBB in future. Inmarsat is sort of opening itself up to that by leaving a gap between the pay as you go and the entry level type bundle.

“The people who only want to spend three, four, five hundred dollars a month, they don’t have the greatest set of options for the data at this point in time. Because how much can 10 or 20MB a month really give you? I’ve heard people say, should I bother upgrading my old Mini-M terminals, do we really want to upgrade them to FB150, because I’m not really sure what we do with 10 or 20MB a month – would that get us any further forward?

“I think Inmarsat’s pricing bracket strategy is good because it gives them lots of differentiation and once people are in those buckets you can push the bucket a little bit in terms of pricing and you won’t have people jump out of it.”

“One of their key issues is going to be now they’ve got a 2GB package how do they shift those people up from spending $1,600 to $2,000 so that they’re going to then feel that they don’t have to spend any more for VSAT. It does leave them open to a bit more competition once better alternatives are in the market.”

“You put all that together and it seems obvious there will be more competition at that lower end of the market from other L-Band solutions in the future.”

I’m interested in the comparison between Intelsat Epic and GX – what’s your take on whether you feel EPIC is going to get much traction beyond the energy, offshore and cruise markets.

“I think it definitely is directed at that higher end of the market. The challenge for GX is just the limits on what you can do in any one beam. If you have 50Mbps, you could put two carriers in one beam and get 100Mbps when it’s not raining.

“But it’s pretty much constrained to that and you think about it from the point of view of a cruiseship, you can’t really dedicate 20Mbps because if you do that to more than a couple of users and all those cruise ships end up in the same part of the Caribbean, then you run out of capacity. And when do cruise passengers want to use the internet? Normally when it starts raining outside and they can’t sit out in the sun so that’s not helping you a whole lot.

“So there’s obviously a desire to stick with Ku-Band to work around rain fade. It’s one of the limitations of GX that it’s designed for coverage, it’s not designed for lots of capacity in a given area.

“So what Intelsat is doing with Ku-band, as I understand it is working the flexibility to add capacity in particular spots, and it’s really designing it around these big pre-committed buyers [MTN and Harris CapRock] who have come along said they want X amount of capacity in the Caribbean. Or Panasonic would say they want X amount across the North Atlantic and that’s what they can put there.

“So it’s been very closely designed in conjunction with those really big players. Whether it will exactly match what a mid-tier maritime player wants, hard to know. For Inmarsat the limitation is how much capacity it can provide in any one area. It also has to manage the capacity itself to some degree. It doesn’t want to be dedicating capacity to a service provider, unless it’s for the government and you want your dedicated beam.”

In terms of other newcomers, O3B is a bit of a mystery to me.

“Yes there must be business there but I’m not sure how it will work out for them. If your market is cruiseships with more than six thousand passengers then there’s a dozen of them then it’s just bizarre. Following cruiseships around with a single beam is not a business. I don’t know how much the cruise ships are actually paying but if you track back to O3B’s numbers their original business plan said they were trying to get something like $4M per beam in revenue and I’m sure that a single cruise ship’s not paying four million dollars per year for capacity.

“I suspect that if they’re paying $1m per year that would be the high end of what I would expect. So you look at it like that it’s not exactly a wonderful business, it’s come back a long way from what they’d hoped.”

Not the end of history: some ruminations on maritime communications

Tim Farrar is an analyst and blogger who has been covering the satellite industry since the mid-1990s. We had crossed paths before, notably discussing his End of History blog and when he posted again about Inmarsat‘s moves in maritime, the time seemed right to have a proper chat with the man for his views on the evolving maritime satcomms space and how the main players were shaping up.

Some time passed (my fault) but what follows is our conversation around those topics and Tim’s views on the major contenders’ plans in maritime. Not a shipping person himself, he is still objective on the offers, how they are priced and how they differentiate in a market that is lining up on different sides of the beam for a struggle for market share and territory in L, Ku and Ka-bands.

MI: I was interested to read one of your recent blog posts which seemed to be coming back to a familiar theme over the last couple of years of castigating Inmarsat somewhat for throwing its weight around. I was writing about LESO-hopping and the lack of transparency and price sensitivity maybe 10 years ago. How’s the current situation different and why is it more important now?

TF: “Well I wasn’t necessarily being critical, I was just noting a shift from what I perceive to be Inmarsat’s reluctance in the past to be as aggressive. Obviously when Inmarsat was not in the retail business it left all of that fighting to the LESOs. And Inmarsat didn’t need to dirty its hands with that competitive stuff.

“So really I think the issue in my mind is not that this should be a surprise, it’s just that it is a difference, Inmarsat is being more aggressive itself. And it has been somewhat reluctant to do that in the past because of it being such a big player. It was all very well for Iridium or other smaller players to come along and offer prices 20% lower than Inmarsat’s and take some of the business.

“Inmarsat is fighting back and saying, ‘I’m going to go very directly after other people’s pricing and offer big incentives’.That’s the difference and when you’re by far the biggest player in the market you wonder whether that will come back to bite them later if for example Inmarsat wants to acquire anyone in this business.

“Let’s think about what happens with LightSquared over the next year. If they want to get out of the business, Inmarsat wants to buy their assets, you could see that aggressive competitive behaviour could be something that would be cited to raise concerns about that.”

As you said they’re not the only people doing it but they are doing it to a greater degree than previously. So does it suggest that this is more of a game for keeps with HTS coming?

“I think you’ve remarked on it in some of your blog posts about how Inmarsat is being more active in that regard from a competitive standpoint. Taking a step back from MSS specifically but just generally, a small player can be aggressive from a competitive situation, and that may not be terribly disruptive to the market.

“If the big player ends up being very aggressive from a competitive front, that’s more likely to end up in a price war type situation. We just we don’t know whether that will happen.

“Clearly Inmarsat have got the resources to outlast some of their competitors if we do get in to a price war. Other people obviously have more financial challenges. If they drive a competitor out of business, that might help Inmarsat in the short term. But as I say it may end up raising issues downstream, especially if Inmarsat ends up picking up the pieces.”

If I can ask you to speculate for a minute do you feel it’s likely that Inmarsat will try to drive some more consolidation in the airtime segment?

“Well I think being over in this part of the world [the US] you naturally have to ask what happens with LightSquared downstream? If it ends up in the hands of its debt holders, they’re hedge funds and they don’t want to be running a satellite business.

“Further downstream you could say maybe Thuraya has to make decisions about what they do with future systems, again they are L-Band and potentially compatible with Inmarsat. It might be quite hard to strike a deal because Thuraya probably want to stay in the satellite business. But there’s possibilities there.

“We can probably rule out Inmarsat and Iridium but on the L-Band front it’s just a situation where many other players are having a relatively tough time and if they ultimately do exit, then is Inmarsat going to want to pick up the pieces?

And do you think it is all about price or is there a degree to which the users signing these contracts are also going with Inmarsat on a bit of a comfort factor – because of who it is, because of its heritage potentially rather than they’ve maybe read about existing reliability and throughput of VSAT?

“On the VSAT side I think there is clearly a pricing issue and there’s a terms issue as well. Inmarsat started off with XpressLink saying it was five year contracts and you’re committing to upgrade to GlobalXpress. It’s far from clear that all of those conditions are being held to, so price is one part of it, flexibility’s another. And yes, adding an L-Band back-up is another differentiator.

“It’s a mixture of all of those, and I think if Inmarsat is stuck with trying to get people to agree to sign up for five years and commit to moving to GlobalXpress whenever they [Inmarsat] want so they can turn off their Ku-Band leases, then those sorts of things, regardless of the price, may have made it a lot more difficult to get people to commit.”

I may have this wrong but I had understood until last year that signing up for XpressLink didn’t just mean a complimentary upgrade to GX, it was a mandatory upgrade. I understand that from a marketing point of view but as you say, it gives little room for manoeuvre.

“And it’s not clear that that happened because the way at least the press releases read, it said Inmarsat would offer you double bandwidth when you moved to Global Xpress so it’s not like saying you’re moving regardless. It’s saying, you will have a better service if you upgrade. It’s not clear if they’re going to go back to clients who already have non-GX compatible terminals and proactively replace those so that they’re ready to turn on to GX or whether they wait for a decision point downstream.

“Obviously they’ve been somewhat constrained in terms of installers, and they’re hiring more and they’ll have more ability to do stuff there, but it’s a question of whether it is worth it to proactively change those old terminals now as opposed to waiting until later.”

Part two follows – on HTS, comparing Inmarsat and VSAT and how to sell either or both…


Crew retention is the tip of the digital iceberg

Almost 12 months ago an ambitious project began to take shape. Roger Adamson of Stark Moore Macmillan, Vizada (now Astrium Services) and two of the largest crewing agencies in the world, Philippine Transmarine Carriers and CF Sharp, joined forces to embark on the most comprehensive survey of crew and their attitudes towards and use of communications at sea ever undertaken.

The resulting report has generated considerable interest. But while Adamson says it is encouraging to see so many shipmanagers and operators recognising the operational benefits of improved communications from a crew retention perspective, in this guest blog, he lays out why he believes there is a wider opportunity which comparatively few in the industry are really grasping.

Considering the enduring importance of crew retention it may seem surprising that until last year no organisation had commissioned definitive independent research into the communications requirements and habits of seafarers.

However, when confronted with the logistics of reaching, collecting and analysing the written, paper responses of almost 1,000 officers and ratings, this lack of comprehensive research becomes rather more understandable.

Key to any research project is the quality of the data and the sample. Had we not been working with PTC and CF Sharp which between them send over 47,000 crew each year to over 1,000 vessels in the commercial cargo and passenger sectors, it is unlikely such a survey would have been possible.

It certainly wouldn’t have produced such high quality data and responses. With the total market for satellite based crew communications estimated at approximately 925,000 individuals, our sample represents in the region of 1% of the market – making the dataset both fascinating and statistically significant.

One of the headline results has been that 68% of seafarers now have access to communications whilst at sea either all or most of the time with only 2% reporting that they never have access to communications. However those headline figures mask a wide variance between different sectors. For instance the passengership sector, despite having the highest levels of communications equipment on board, provides the lowest levels of free crew communications of any sector.

In common with the passenger sector, offshore vessels have very high levels of equipment, but neither of these are principally driven by crew communications requirements. For the passenger sector, high-bandwidth communications systems are major revenue generators with the penetration of VSAT extremely high.

Similarly, the offshore sector is well penetrated with VSAT systems as charterer requirements dictate high-bandwidth be available, but in contrast to the passenger sector, offshore vessels offer far better access to free and paid-for communications, most likely a reflection of the scarcity of qualified offshore crew.

Across the sectors 46% of crew are not provided with any form of free communications at all. In the context of crew retention that figure should be raising eyebrows.

As a regular speaker at the Informa Manning & Training conference, where this year I’ve been asked to speak to delegates in Dubrovnik about crew communications, I consistently hear managers and operators wrestling with the issue of crew retention.

I’m repeatedly being told that the expense of training crew means that retaining them offers real dollar savings and competitive advantage. When one considers the noise VSAT has been making over the past several years it is curious that we are still in a situation where almost half of all seafarers have no access to free communications, when the ability to provide them with such would not only assist in their retention, but also offer broader opportunities to ship managers and operators.

I think this is where the real issues lie. Traditionally the expense of satellite communications together with the necessity for robust equipment and reliability in an environment where mission-critical literally equates to life and death, has always meant failure wasn’t an option and experimentation challenging.

As one of the most regulated industries in the world, shipping is about compliance and meeting minimum requirements. In many respects it is a unique industry, but it is not immune from the digital revolution which has swept up every other.

With the IMO advocating an over-arching e-navigation strategy combining ECDIS with new technologies converging across navigation, IT and communications, the landscape of maritime business is changing fast.

The opportunities for forward thinking ship managers and operators are highly significant, but unlocking maritime’s digital promise will require a major shift in thinking. IT, communications and digital technologies have the potential to drive cost savings, service improvements and the all-important crew retention.

In my experience shipmanagers and operators are hungry to understand how and where their businesses can implement and benefit from these changes, but as yet suppliers aren’t creating the cross-businesses value propositions to help them.

By commissioning the Crew Communications 2012 survey Astrium have signaled their intention to address this need. The wealth of information it has provided to shipmanagers and operators about the crew they depend upon is extremely valuable, but it’s only the beginning of what’s required.

Case studies have always been the primary tool in the maritime salesperson’s armoury, but what’s needed now are more independent, in-depth studies and analysis which can inform both suppliers, and ship managers and operators.

The advent of new High Throughput Satellite systems, from Intelsat EPIC to Inmarsat’s GlobalXpress, O3B to Iridium NEXT, means bandwidth and speeds will accelerate further. But without the context of operational implementation and potential cost efficiencies these systems are just adding a new level of complexity for ship managers and operators.

We are approaching an era of real technology convergence in maritime which has the potential to transform the industry for the better. Doing so will require technology suppliers to gain a far more holistic and in-depth understanding of the shipping business. And for ship managers and operators to help them.

A condensed version of the Stark Moore McMillan report, Crew Communications 2012 is available for download from here.

A year has gone by…

…since I started MaritimeInsight and March again finds me in Stamford once again, where the Connecticut Maritime Association moves and shakes for the next three days.

Over the last year I’ve tried to unpick the main issues impacting communications and technology. I probably haven’t always got it right but my guiding principle was to provide a forum for neutral debate on where the sector is going and how that fits with the wider industry.

That commitment remains because the 12 months have shown that left to the marketing men, there is as much spin and smoke around as there is clear guiding information. And because the next couple of years will likely define who survives and who falls by the wayside.

As I have noted it in recent posts, communications is a market in the midst of an upheaval and one for which the future will look somewhat like the past but there will be fundamental changes too. The next challenge is probably less about selecting systems and more about empowering and enabling crew to ensure that the users can extract real value from them.

One need only look at the latest DigitalShip to see that VSAT has gone from a nice to have to a must-have for owners of high quality tonnage. The emergence of the HTS era will see that trend strengthen but there are big questions to be asked and answered.

Will Inmarsat continue to gain enough traction on XpressLink to cement the take up of GlobalXpress? Will Intelsat get its IPO away and EPIC in service? and will Iridium NEXT get off the ground? Will Globalstar’s second-generation play come good? I recently authored an article for Via Satellite on the step change in satellite comms and I couldn’t get O3B to tell me anything so I guess they are busy.

How far will Ku-band VSAT be able to keep up the pressure on all these? And what happens to L-band spectrum as owners begin to move away from their comfort zone?

As Maersk Maritime Technology’s Bo Cerup Simonsen put it at last week’s GreenShip Technology conference, the biggest challenge is not technology, or financing or sustainability, it is ‘survivability’ and whether shipping companies and their suppliers have the financial stability to last the course.

Maersk of course is the industry’s bellwether, a company which defines engagement with the core shipping issues, principally the need to get a handle on big data and in the process improve operational efficiency.

The Maersk fleet of 870 large containerships ships is already reporting into a single database, with data flowing almost continuously on an automated basis, helping the company develop performance benchmarks on people and ships alike.

That means that big blue can sharpen its competitive edge, assessing the impact of fuel saving technologies and comparing vessel performance, dropping poorly performing chartered tonnage and bringing in younger ships as necessary. Crew are incentivised to improve performance within safe working limits.

“It’s a case of deciding if you are going to do the minimum or the best, to work beyond what is regulated and maintain your vision,” Simonsen said. “The key aspect for us is to make sure that the data and software burden are not placed on the crew. We monitor and measure then discuss with the crew what the implications are.”

Properly resourcing crew training was fundamental to this – there was no point in investing in technology without helping crew get the most out of it. So once again we are back to the humanware. Software, technology, systems, these are just means to an end. The real challenge is to educate and change mindsets.

Managing the data shipboard load and creating low/high end opportunities

In the first part of my interview with Roger Adamson, the Stark Moore McMillan ceo laid out some of the issues that face the bandwidth vendors in 2013 and beyond. In the second part we discuss how owners and managers are adapting to the changing landscape of systems and services.

Among the issues discussed are how companies cope with the data flow that will increasingly come off the ship, whether there are opportunities at the ‘low end’ of the market for GSM services and what can we expect in the near term, especially from Inmarsat and the introduction of Global Xpress.

MI: We were talking before about the trend towards more data being available ‘off the ship’ and you mentioned that optimisation is an engrained requirement in shipping. Does that mean that either large amounts of data are not actually needed or that the optimisation means that volumes will never hit the gold rush levels we are hearing about? It seems to me that in many cases, shipmanagers can actually function perfectly well with a hundred megabits a month or less. If they organise well enough, they probably don’t need a huge amount so I’m not sure whether again it bears the VSAT argument out?

RA: “In some of the research we’ve done, around 70-100MB a month was average for a FleetBroadband user and around about 10-20Gb was average for a VSAT user.  That 70-100MB is primarily operational data. But once you start going up into the gigabyte level then you’re probably talking only 10 or 20% of that being operational traffic, it’s a few gigabytes, and could be a lot less.

“The rest is taken up with crew access: browsing and a lot of people using things like Skype which is incredibly bandwidth inefficient but they’re using it because they think it’s free. They’re using it over a data circuit but it is just totally inefficient, so it’s chewing up bandwidth and distorting the figures.”

MI: Is there an issue too with the data collected and transmitted? High bandwidth promises more throughput and increased reporting but where does the data go and who uses it?

RA: “What vendors are basically saying is we’ll give you a big high bandwidth pipe and you can send all kinds of data from ship to shore. The trouble is you’ve got two or three people that are looking after each ship, or a fleet or a number of ships and these guys don’t have the bandwidth to be able to look at the data, interpret it or make decisions on it.

“A few people that I’ve heard from and spoken with are saying it’s great, it’s fantastic all this data coming back, but we just don’t have the time to look at it, what do we do with this stuff? They are busy trying to just manage the ships without getting into building the efficiency themselves and I don’t think there are that many ship operators with the level of staff that can make those decisions.”

MI: Looking at maritime satcoms from the other end of the telescope, there seems to be renewed interest in GSM and wireless services. Could pressure on the middle come the other way and give owners or operators at the low end an option so that they don’t need to kind of upgrade to higher bandwidth satellite?

“A few operators that I’ve talked to are using GSM services primarily in short sea trades and for container operators on liner routes, who know that they’re going to be within 3G coverage will work in certain places. We are starting to see some like European wide SIM cards where there’s one flat rate across Europe now.

“The problem if you like with GSM is making the business model work with a crew of 15 or 20 people. The concept is great, because people would rather be able to sit in their cabin and use their mobile phones, but getting the kit on board can create another administrative burden for shipowners and managers.

“Also the dynamics have changed. In the Philippines and in Northern Europe as well, users are moving away from SMS traffic in favour of social media and instant messaging. The previous business models were focussed not so much on voice but on SMS because the profit margin was better.”

MI: OK, looking into your crystal ball it would be interesting to know what you think are the trends that we should be looking out for in 2013. Aside from the consolidation and changing the sales focus, are there other major trends that you perceive in the market over the next couple of years?

“It’s an interesting time at the moment seeing Inmarsat try to go direct and go via the channel. It’s quite a juggling act and I think there will always be distributors who will get them into places in the market that would be very difficult for themselves to get to directly, because of the existing relationships.

“Certainly the danger is that you hack off your loyal distributors, or that they don’t have the margins they need in order to make it a profitable business to stay in so don’t put the same level of resource behind it as they once did.

“That said, the way Global Xpress looks, I can see them having a lot of success in the same way as they’ve had with FleetBroadband. Some 32,000 FB terminals in, let’s say, five years on the market and VSAT has been around since the mid to late 1990s and we’re up to 11-12,000 installations, it’s clear what works.

MI: What about the simple versus complex argument. I think users are beginning to grasp that buying GX won’t be the same as buying Fleet or Fleetbroadband?

RA: “Yes, what led people to buy Inmarsat equipment in the last few years was the simplicity and the understanding of the network. VSAT is more complex, with far more variables: which antenna do I have, what levels of coverage do I have, the key thing is the network operator or there could be four or five network operators that we’ve knitted together a patchwork.

“The model has been simple for people to understand and if that stays there, then GX will be quite difficult to match. We’ve seen that with the EPIC NG offering, which comes back to conditioning for the market and who you’re selling to but if you’re a ship owner or an operator what is EPIC?

“The Inmarsat model means one network, a smaller number of manufacturers and below deck and the above deck equipment in the one package.  If they replicate that model and putting aside rain fade and Ka/Ku band issues, if they get the business model right then I can see that it is path of least resistance for VSAT going forward.”

Ku or Ka? Wide or Narrow? Clarity or… More on Intelsat’s maritime ambitions

In the second part of my interview with James Collett, Director Mobility Services at Intelsat, we talk more on coverage, capacity and confidence from the buyer’s and user’s viewpoints. There is also some de-mystification on the subject of Ku and Ka bands and even a view on why clarity matters more than mudslinging.

MI: Coming back to the user perspective, the traditional view runs along the lines of mariners like Inmarsat because it gives them a global coverage network. They can negotiate with the supplier on price and get it to a point where they are happy. But if I’m a spot trading shipowner can I use Epic and feel confident that I’m going to get the same global coverage?

James Collett: “I think the important question for shipowners is, can they can use Intelsat’s network and be safe that they have got coverage in the right places? Today we have a very extensive global Ku-band footprint based on wide beam technology. We’ve got our launch of Intelsat 27 early next year which will complete what we call our global Ku-band mobility platform.

“Let me put it in context of a major maritime VSAT operator with a mature customer base of offshore, commercial and fisheries customers and who would say that 3% of their requirements are not covered by their Ku-band footprint. The coverage improvement on Ku-band has been dramatic. Intelsat has particularly been focused on the mobility segment, and decided that we would incrementally improve our global Ku coverage. So I think we’re starting from a good place where we could put global Ku band in front of the typical shipowner, and it would cover 97% of their traffic requirements.

“Another prevalent sales objection for Ku-band VSAT is ’I need a path into next generation Ka-band’.  That’s where Epic comes in, because we’re not saying to the customer, you’ve just got to stick with today’s wide Ku-beams. We are delivering an overlay network which will allow them to derive a service which is a blend across two Intelsat networks. We’re already providing very fast services in our wide Ku-band beams, so you will either be able to go faster or you will have a more cost effective service when you have the benefit of Epic coverage.

“Our distributors and integrators will create packages that bring the benefits of Epic to the regions where they have most vessels, thereby delivering a cost per bit improvement in the right places. Our aim is to put the capacity where people most need it.

“So from a maritime user’s perspective his Intelsat service will look exactly the same whether the vessel’s in a wide beam or in an Epic narrow spot beam. More importantly though in the parts of the world where shipping densities are highest that Intelsat Epic NG spot beam could support much higher levels of aggregate traffic.”

But doesn’t that work only as long as all ships and all aircraft look at your coverage maps before they set out and go well we’ve got to go this way to stay in the footprint?

“With the Intelsat network, ships will sit in the wide beams ordinarily, and because they’ll be more dispersed in those beams, we can give them plenty of capacity. But where they’re all concentrated in the same area, we’ll have additional capacity in the shape of the Epic narrow beams. The two Intelsat Epic NG satellites we have announced are not the start and finish of the EPIC network – it’s a capability which we can bring to any new satellite.”

So would it be fair to speculate that the customer would be getting better throughput for about the same price as they might be paying for Global Xpress?

“The true metric is the cost of moving a bit from shore to ship or ship to shore. The design of Epic will have 8-10 times the throughput of a standard satellites, allowing for cost efficient high throughput transmission Customers will see higher performance through lower cost per bit.”

From what you’re saying, I wonder if the Ka vs Ku debate is getting to be a slightly pointless level of comparison?

“I think that’s a fair observation, and I don’t think Intelsat has never said that Ka-band isn’t a good solution. In fact, we fly some Ka capability today. By the same token the Epic platform will incorporate C-band, Ku-band and Ka-band payloads, and I think there’s enough evidence today that high throughput is not about the band but it’s about the way you deploy the network.”

The recent Panasonic white paper seemed to say the answer is it depends on what you’re using it for, how you’re using it, what you’re trying to do.

“What I took from that paper is that it’s not Ku versus Ka, its narrow spot beams versus wide spot beams. And once you put K-anything into narrow spot beams you get a huge throughput advantage.”

What I also can’t help but feel is that the whole Alan Gottleib vs Inmarsat debate is a diversion too. It doesn’t actually help the mariner or the satcoms buyer, the shipmanager, or the superintendent. I find most of what is being said redundant and pretty unhelpful.

“I completely agree. In my mind I bring it back to a couple of key things that will determine success in this area. Firstly, enabling more cost effective solutions for the shipowner and the shipmanager, where ultimately we as an industry are able to drive an increased spend on communication by really delivering value at the ship level.”

“And secondly I think the other big industry debate and what will govern success or failure, is engaging and enrolling distributors to be able to profitably market the creative solutions that are going to drive that utilisation. Ultimately if you can deliver value to the end user through a motivated and creative distribution channel, then I think you can be successful.”

Epic stuff – James Collett on Intelsat, Inmarsat and what really matters in maritime

To leafy Chiswick in West London and the offices of Intelsat for a wide-ranging conversation with James Collett, late of Inmarsat and now Director of Mobility Services at Intelsat, charged with building its rival’s maritime business on promising foundations.

In a quiet period ahead of its planned IPO, we were obliged to steer clear of forward looking statements and much as in conversations with Inmarsat, there was no firm detail on costs of the system and its throughput. But that didn’t prevent us from discussing the merits of Global Xpress as well as EPICNG, Intelsat’s HTS programme that offers GX its most concerted competition.

It became clear as we talk that Intelsat’s ambitions are to move beyond the high end segments and attack the mainstream maritime market too. Also that Intelsat sees its DP and ISP relationships as key to success in the maritime market. Also clear was that Collett personally has little time for the back and forth that seems to obsess some satcom commentators.

Indeed, his understanding of Inmarsat’s business as well his plans for Intelsat speaks volumes for what will be an interesting couple of years for satellite operators with a strong, scalable offer and a firm grasp on the realities of the market.

Maritime Insight: Let’s talk about Intelsat and I guess Intelsat EpicNG is the thing that is of interest as an HTS solution. Do you see it as a competitor to Global Xpress?

James Collett “I think it’s fair to say that our customers will build solutions that are competitive to Global Xpress by leveraging Epic. However it’s not in itself a competitive response to Global Xpress – it’s an evolution of our technology, the embracing of High Throughput Satellite by Intelsat, and is really a route for us to grow with our customers in the regions we serve today. We worked closely with our customers to develop this platform.

“There are obviously a lot of similarities because we are in the same sectors as Inmarsat. We see the same drivers, we see the same opportunities, we have access to the same space technology as they do, and we are also continually in an investment phase in terms of replenishing our fleet.”

You are certainly both on the same trend in terms of putting up High Throughput Satellite (HTS) services?

“Yes, HTS is what everyone is talking about but we’ve come at it in very different ways. In L-band, and typically for Inmarsat, it’s been about looking into the future, and creating an offering that you think is going to have wide appeal. The FSS operator’s approach is more around what demand do I see from my customers today, where are my customers heading, and how can I continue to grow with them?

“The deals that we’ve announced on EPIC – MTN for cruise and Harris CapRock for oil and gas – are both based on meeting the customer’s growing future requirements with the Epic network. Outside of maritime and offshore, we have announced Panasonic Avionics as a leading aviation service provider for whom Epic technology will allow them to reach the next level with their customers.

“Having those customers leading from the front really solidified our case for going ahead with this technology.  Subsequently it’s become a question of how do we make the capability enabled by Epic more accessible in the marketplace, and how do we drive that capability to the maritime users who we think will benefit most from those new services.”

So you’re in a similar position to the old Inmarsat model if I can call it that, in that your partners act as DPs or ISPs, adding value to your signal?

“We feel we have always benefited from the richness and the diversity that the distributors of the Intelsat service provide to maritime users. Intelsat has traditionally been seen as a fixed satellite services operator where the value-add has been around teleports and our IntelsatOne terrestrial network and the value-added services that those distributors offer. Our model for Epic allows those integrators and distributors to carry on in that mode of working.

“We feel that it’s not our skill and our competence to define the specific services that a maritime end user should be buying. Similarly we won’t define the price points at which they should be sold. We’ve clearly got distributors that are far more expert in that, whether it’s Astrium Services, MTN, Harris CapRock, Globe Wireless or KVH, who are all experts in that domain, and whose business is absolutely built on differentiation.

“That’s the interesting bit for me and where the Inmarsat and the Intelsat paths are very divergent. There have been observations that with Global Xpress, the latitude and opportunity for a distributor is being squeezed since you’ve got retail prices being set by the wholesaler. You’ve also got a flattening of the distribution channel in that players who previously were second tier are now effectively direct to Inmarsat.

“On top of all that you’ve now got value-added solutions being provided by the satellite operator, so I think some people in the value chain will be asking ‘what’s left for me?’ If a distributor has a choice between selling one service which makes them a fixed margin, with another that gives them more flexibility over the contribution it makes, then there’s no surprise which one they will push.”

Intelsat has agreements in the very high end segments where there is big demand from energy and offshore cruiseships – but can you scale it down in effect, for mainstream merchant shipping?

“Those are customers and segments that we are very strong in today, and ones in which we see further growth. At the same time we’re not ignoring the market opportunity that exists in commercial shipping, because that is largely a new market for Ku-band VSAT. There’s obviously been some well publicised incursions into that, such as the Maersk, Ericsson/Globecomm deal.

“We do see more opportunity coming in that area. So I don’t think there is this natural segmentation in the market which will keep us apart, I think just as Inmarsat is keen to make it clear that they’re coming after the VSAT market, then Ku-band VSAT has been after the Inmarsat market for a long time.”