Tag Archives: FleetBroadband

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.”

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.

A carrot-shaped stick

Last week’s publication by investment bank Morgan Stanley of a report which polled three industry professionals on their views on FSS market prospects has caused a flutter or two, given its conclusion that the sector has entered a ‘no-growth’ cycle, with returns likely to decline over the next few years.

Fortunately at least for Inmarsat, Intelsat, O3B et al, Morgan’s fairly damning conclusions don’t seem to extend to the MSS sector nor to maritime, which together with aero and oil & gas is singled out as the source of strong growth in coming years.

The three FSS experts polled by the bank are bullish on Latin America and ‘large parts’ of Asia, but less promisingly think that High Throughput Satellites (HTS) will “struggle to open up new markets,” leading to an overall negative outlook, their creators having failed to book enough backlog pre-launch.

Handy then that shipping is a source of untrammelled revenue growth (insert smiley here). Across the MSS sector, this year has been something of a stinker and the latest developments hardly seem to encourage a significant change.

The war being fought over maritime HTS territory has moved from a land grab towards a series of skirmishes in which competitors compete to estimate how delayed the other’s service will be.

It’s ‘situation normal’ over at City Road too, where no sooner had Inmarsat announced that there would be no price rises on FleetBroadband for 2014, it announced a soaking of E&E customers for the revenue shortfall.

Inmarsat Maritime president Frank Coles told Digital Ship Singapore that there would be ‘categorically’ no changes in FleetBroadband pricing for 2014. This looked like good news – the increases in FB pay as you go pricing in 2012 and 2013 were a source of easy ammunition for Inmarsat’s many L-band and Ku-band competitors – despite making bulk plans cheaper.

As a result, maritime revenues have seen consistent growth, suggesting that either users love FB so much that they are prepared to swallow hard and pay or, more likely that the 38,000 active terminals represent a point of no return for users.

The point of no return is being experienced for users of Inmarsat’s existing and evolved (E&E) services – mostly Inmarsat Fleet and some Inmarsat-B – who will see prices increase by almost half in the new year.

DigitalShip reported that E&E services would increase by 48 per cent on services for 2.4 kbps fax and data; 9.6 kbps fax and data; ISDN/HSD (64 kbps); MPDS; and F77 128 kbps ISDN.

The really puzzling thing here is that given that there are 60,000 E&E terminals in service, Inmarsat blamed the change in pricing on ‘a result of a reducing number of users on its older satellite networks’. For sure the costs of maintaining those services are increasing but since 60,000 is a figure somewhat greater than 38,000, that claim doesn’t really stack up, does it?

Inmarsat told DigitalShip it had “advised partners that, owing to the rate of customer migration from legacy E&E services to FleetBroadband and XpressLink [Inmarsat] had carefully considered the financial impact of maintaining legacy E&E services for a declining customer base. As a result, it was planning “to align the value of the data services on its Fleet77 services with that of the increasingly popular FleetBroadband and XpressLink”.

In other words, the need to book revenue growth meant the increase had to come from somewhere. And that means laggard owners who have not yet seen the light will now pay even more for the privilege of using a legacy service.

Researching an article on maritime satcoms earlier this year it became apparent just how much owners resented the increases on pay as you go FB and on E&E services. While the trend seemed to be towards changing out Fleet77 there was a double-bind; pay an increasing amount for E&E or upgrade to a service that might be faster and cheaper initially, but tht comes with no guarantee of a price cap.

Owners have that certainty for a year at least, but previously contented E&E users might think very hard before they opt for FB over the proliferating Ku-band competition – after all, they will be locking in one way or the other.

It’s another big bet by Inmarsat that customers will favour a global service over regional VSAT services with back-up that puts them back in the discomfort zone and presumably the work to communicate the news to the channel partners is being done with the customary tact and diplomacy. Even so, it’s one hell of a carrot-shaped stick.

‘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…

Owners speak – and you might not like everything they have to say

I was commissioned out of the blue earlier this year to write an article for Via Satellite magazine. I was flattered to be asked frankly – time for writing is a rare luxury these days – hence the lack of updates here recently.

The one thing the editor was clear on was that I couldn’t speak to any airtime providers – or at least couldn’t include any of their comments in the article. The piece had to be purely on the developments in the market and how owners and managers were responding.

What I found was largely what I expected – a movement towards Ku-band VSAT among the higher end owners and a period of adjustment elsewhere as buyers transition off older and increasingly expensive L-band systems and onto lower per MB packages as a positional move ahead of HTS systems becoming available within the next few years.

There is some mixing and matching of systems going on, based on areas of operation and there is the usual trade-off between the coverage and higher bandwidth models. The more specialist the operator of course, the more focussed the usage, with ferry operator Stena Rederi using hybrid services to cover crew, passenger and business use. It also has a service agreement that effectively transfers a lot of the performance risk onto its provider, but Stena says the relationship has prospered as a result.

For the tanker owners such as Laurin Maritime, crew usage is unsurprisingly cited as the primary driver for VSAT contracts and business use remains a secondary consideration for the most part.

What they mostly think is that satcoms are still too expensive – or at least that they expect the landside model to prevail – guaranteed performance up to a point, faster services and lower prices resulting from stronger competition.

In the process of upgrading its fleet, Intership Navigation of Cyprus also sought even more flexibility, the ability to conclude short term rental agreements rather than make purchases or conclude long term leases.

That seems surprising when airtime suppliers are pricing so aggressively to win business from each other, but it might make sense if suppliers could provide a service that gives the owner a completely new level of flexibility.

There is also a sense that buyers are risk averse, sensing that the shift from L-Band to VSAT and on to HTS carries the risk of the unknown that in the current climate could be a risk too far. This might be conservatism and it might be experience.

One owner reminded me of the Connexion by Boeing debacle, when the mainstream satellite market once again eyed maritime as some kind of untapped opportunity. Its complete failure made for great copy at the time but a salutory warning.

Shipowners have long memories as well as big problems and shallow pockets. Selling to this market will take a golden touch. The idea of being first to market is less appealing than in the heady days pre-2008. Expensive mistakes are not an option.

Oh and by the way in case you are wondering, I didnt choose the headline – my suggestion was a lot more sanguine – but I hope you enjoy the article.

“Stop, hey what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down”

In real shooting wars, spring is traditionally the start of campaigning season. Soldiers emerge from their dugouts and form up, ready to receive orders of the new offensive. Weapons are cleaned and primed, provisions re-stocked, maps updated.

In maritime communications almost the opposite is happening. Having fought a year-long campaign in 2012 and a bitter winter engagement into the first quarter of this year, something close to peace appears to have broken out between satcom’s warring factions.

It’s like the scene in many a war movie when the NCO turns to the officer and says “I don’t like it sir, it’s too quiet.” The recent Sea-Asia show was a case in point.

There were some nice Widgets from SingTel (which also had a stand to gladden the eye of many a sea-dog, while arguably doing somewhat less for gender equality) and some contract announcements here and there, but apart from that not much to set the heart racing.

Many of the familiar players were there but the message seemed to be more ‘keep calm and carry on’ than ‘once more into the breach’.

That makes sense. Consider the situation across what we might at a stretch call the Rebel Alliance. Intelsat looked to have timed the equity market rally right but its IPO eventually priced below expectations. Whether that or its recent launch failure have any impact on its plans for EPIC remains open to some question.

Iridium used the recent Satellite 2013 conference to firm up plans for Iridium Next, laying out ambitious schedules for the build programme but seems to be as focussed on Aireon and the aero sector right now as maritime.

Globalstar too appears confident it can restructure itself sufficiently to secure the funding it needs to put its launch plans into practice, though it seems to be testing investors’ patience.

At this point it would make sense to comment on O3B but since they consistently ignore any requests for information (and seem to have instructed their clients to do the same) we’ll have to assume that plans for cruise market domination continue to take shape in the dormant volcano (or similar) that they use for an HQ.

The news from KVH suggests reinforcement too – a deal with Iridium to provide a connection in polar regions when users are outside VSAT or FB coverage areas. From their point of view a neat way to work around the price rises on FB pay as you go, though you can’t help thinking they have spiked their own guns rather than turning them on the old lady.

Having asked Inmarsat what they were up to during the Singapore show, the answer was ‘business development’ rather than ‘marketing offensive’. The appearance of Frank Coles on SinoShip’s Maritime CEO column doesn’t really change that in my view.

There is a good reason for that. At the CMA Shipping 2013 conference last month Coles sat at the end of a very long panel speakers about maritime technology innovation. Each was interesting in their own way and most had a story to tell of the kind of operational insights and efficiencies that could be gained from greater use of data. Oh and the tidal wave of data that could be generated by crew communications if only they were given unrestricted web access.

Coles had the task for once of delivering the reality check – some of this was possible now, some would come in due course and some might not happen any time soon. It was a salutary lesson for the dreamers and a reminder to regular students of this subject that cart and horse must be in the right order to pull ammunition to the troops in the front line as well as hauling away the casualties.

I didn’t attend the ACI Maritime Communications conference at the end of March but I understand from those that were there that the face-off between Coles and self-styled nemesis Alan Gottleib was more phoney war than shock and awe.

There are solid reasons why this is a positive development. The next few years will see the maritime industry begin to emerge from the downturn but this will happen in a piecemeal and messy way. Anyone imagining there will be a return to the good old days where all boats rise on the incoming tide should probably get out now.

That gives the satellite industry and its technology partners some breathing space in which to actually do the work necessary to deliver the next generation of services about which it has been talking for so long. As noted above, financing has to be nailed down, orders placed, satellites built and launched, ancillary systems developed and some cases technologies created for the first time.

Alliances and treaties need to be shored up too – between vendors, distributors and partners – and in the process we could see some of the mergers and consolidation so long predicted.

This peace cannot be expected to last forever of course. In early June the DigitalShip roadshow moves on to Oslo and Nor-Shipping, where the first Maritime CIO Forum will be held on 5 June. There will be some presentations but the afternoon session will see a high level debate with representatives from the vendors and partners and I hope industry users, moderated by me since the editor will by then be knee-deep in nappies.

By then perhaps we will have heard more about what happens next but even so I think we should be prepared to sit this one out for a while longer. There may be a temporary ceasefire but the war is far from over.

Or as Stephen Stills put it so eloquently in Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ “…battle lines been drawn, nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong…”

Cold winds and tough times

Last week’s DigitalShip Hamburg conference was a living testament to the troubles that are threatening to wash away many shipping companies. Registration was strong but attendance was a little lower than previous years. Ask anyone about that and they would reply ‘these guys have other things to worry about’.

They are right. The insolvency of three single-ship KG companies associated with Hamburg’s Vega Reederei the same week underlined the fact that the German shipping market and the finance system that supports it are under serious threat.

The picture is the same globally, though owners have managed to defer the worst effects by burning through the cash piles amassed pre-2008 and because the banks (another group with rather bigger things on their mind) haven’t moved to repossess because interest rates have been so low.

That is changing and satellite communications may not escape unscathed as the market tightens. For a SOLAS universe of either 40,000 or perhaps closer to 70,000 merchant ships, there are at least three MSS airtime providers, dozens of DPs and SPs and rivals from FSS who moved into maritime a few years ago.

As Marlink’s Knut Natvig mentioned in his first-day introduction, the SP is the glue between the airtime provider and the customer – they have the crucial role of getting pricing right and adding value.

Now, the usual suspects will already be saying that Inmarsat is doing a pretty good job of putting smaller SPs out of business by raising PAYG prices, but looked at dispassionately, something will have to change.

Indeed, it has already changed. An SP of my acquaintance is fond of remarking that selling airtime may have been the past but certainly won’t be the future. When an OEM or a software vendor can also be an airtime provider, the fight gets too tough for many.

This will force the SPs to get better at what they already do – squeezing value out of L-Band even while they decide whether to take the bigger bet on Ku or Ka-band VSAT. And if rumours going around Hamburg that one big and well-known SP is indeed up for sale are correct, the evidence is that change is already observable.

And if the market pre-GX was tough, the market after could be tougher still. As DPs, SPs and OEMs sign up to the SEP and GX and accept everything that goes with that, the mid-size players, or simply those not fleet enough of foot, will be left to scrap it out even as the big boys pull further away.

For the Marlinks of this world, that may be less of a problem as they are hedged across all the products as are others, so customers can order a la carte or table d’hôte.

It was said once again in Hamburg that the IT department needs to get out from behind their desks and understand more clearly what is happening in chartering and operations.

As Pietro Amorusi of D’Amico noted, “Shipowners don’t want to take care of solutions, they want to forget about problems. When you go to buy a drill, what you really need is a hole – this should be the approach.”

And that goes the other way. DPs and SPs should be on their customers like glue, talking about the future, describing scenarios and laying out options.

They will still have a hard job. Inmarsat’s direct sales strategy is increasing pricing pressure but the other DPs and SPs are at it too. Inmarsat Maritime President Frank Coles told the audience he expected some kind of consolidation over the next couple of years and that he didn’t think there would be any ‘unlimited’ bandwidth packages on offer in maritime in future if demand continued to increase.

Zeev Steinluaf from Station711 said he could see the day when the majority of crew access was free at point of use, either subsidised by the owner, the DP/SP or supported by advertising.

So the trick of it, just as in the shipping piece itself, is relationships. What the L-Band DPs and SPs have that the VSAT vendors don’t by and large is the relationships – in some cases built up over years. The VSAT vendors can talk service speed and capacity, but you wonder sometimes if they are as close to the market as they claim.

Still, another DS done and we have reasonable clarity on what we might expect over the next year and into 2014 by which time we will have a first glimpse of what GX might be capable of. All shipowners and managers have to do know is call with great accuracy the timing and extent of the market’s recovery in their particular sector and we are home and dry…

The battle lines are drawn – but who really wins?

Next week sees the DigitalShip conference bandwagon land in Hamburg and the scene is set for another confrontation in the ongoing battle between Inmarsat, shipowners and competing vendors on the issue of price rises on its PAYG and E&E services.

I should declare an interest immediately and say that DigitalShip has invited me to chair day two of the conference so I expect to picking up some body parts. But apart from packing my thermals to prepare me for the bitter winds that apparently blow through the Magnushall, what else should we expect?

Well, we know that Inmarsat Maritime CEO Frank Coles will be there but his nemesis Alan Gottleib will not be, though it would be foolish to write off some interventions from his mischief-making comrades at KVH.

And for anyone who still doubts it, we will hear again that Inmarsat is a (very) commercial provider of satcoms to maritime, aero and land mobile markets. Its decision to raise prices on E&E and PAYG services represents a desire to improve earnings and so reward shareholders for whom shipping is another commodity business among many.

It may piss people off – and it has – but anyone that calls Inmarsat a monopoly in this era of choice and competition is missing the point. Inmarsat has been called many things: the biggest player in the market, certainly; the best-looking girl at the dance, perhaps; but the fact is that it operates a network that enables users to connect globally and at prices which are readily and transparently available from their re-sellers.

Is it throttling smaller customers? So its detractors claim. But the fact is that DPs and SPs (and not just Stratos) continue to offer small MB packages for owners that prefer to work that way. What confuses me (and perhaps owners too) is that Inmarsat is accused of removing small data plans by the same people who also want to upsell them to large data bundles.

Are Inmarsat’s motives hidden? Does it plan to corner both the airtime market and that for applications as has been suggested elsewhere this week? It’s possible, but I think doubtful. If nothing else, Inmarsat understands its place in the satcoms universe.

It could even be said that the amount of attention Frank Coles has drawn to the spoutings of KVH and others on LinkedIn overstates their importance. Preaching to the choir, like picking one’s nose, generates limited returns.

And besides, there are too many competing options to allow for complacency.

When I covered Inmarsat for Lloyd’s List in the 2000s, just as VSAT was starting to nibble away at the edges of L-Band, Inmarsat was a more timid beast, fearful of being assertive and risk backlash and censure. The competition liked that because it gave them room for manoeuvre.

What we have now is the opposite – a confident company with a strategy which is less focussed on chasing road warriors than it is serving a core maritime demographic. Does that piss off the competition and its consultants? Of course.

So what to expect next week? A bullish defence from Inmarsat for sure, but will we see an insurrection from users? The evidence suggests not. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for and that doesn’t mean that prices stay the same for ever.

In a couple of weeks hence, Coles meets Gottleib at the rather more commercial ACI satcoms event and perhaps there we will see (self-styled) David take on Goliath.

But I still wonder what the core takeaway message will be from both events. I think it is this. Users do have choice and they also have dollars, if fewer to spare than once they did. To focus on cost above value without any reference to the bigger picture is to miss a gaping opportunity.

But there is change already apparent.

After all, at DS Athens, it was the IT departments who came forward to say that they needed to work more closely with the ops and chartering department, to break out of their silos and upsell the opportunity that better communications presents.

It seems to me that regardless of the channel they use, grasping the opportunity to save costs and drive efficiencies is more profitable than simply comparing competing offers. Quality of service, reliability and coverage should be the determining factors.

And from a quick glance at the programme for next week it becomes clear that the industry is already grasping the opportunities that better communications presents. Airtime providers should do themselves a favour and focus on their customers rather than each other.

Satcoms buyer – heal thyself

Kevin Tester of MITE was right to warn last week that buyers tread a minefield in specifying maritime satellite communications systems. There has never been greater choice in terms of airtime, band and bandwidth, hardware and value-add solutions and never more clamouring voices trying to flog you unlimited this and unrestricted that.

I’d like to put a parallel point of view, not because I disagree with him, but because it’s one that bears repeating. Put simply, owners and managers have to do more than shop comparatively and in doing so drive down price to the lowest possible level.

At the heart of the problem lies a chronic but typically shipping industry mismatch. Owners want the moon on a stick (OK well, fuel savings) but insist on holding down the comms budget and making it hard for the entrepreneurs Kevin talks about to provide the value adds that might actually save them money.

Who is stopping that engine condition monitoring data getting ashore? Yes it’s the owner. Who is wasting money (as Giampiero Soncini regularly contends) on inventory because they cannot replicate databases or make RFQs from the ship. Right again. The list goes on and on.

Some owners go the other way. Dualog told last year’s DS Athens of the Norwegian anchor handling workboat which burned through 40-60GB a month but had no IT policy in place, resulting in congestion so bad that the bridge team couldn’t communicate when they needed to, risking put the ship off-hire.

For the most part, though it’s famine not feast that is the problem. Service providers can talk all they like about the potential of higher bandwidth, faster speeds and HTS services – owners still see cost not value. As a result, the majority of the SOLAS fleet is living in a world closer to 256kb or even lower than to megabits per second. Some send a few hundred megabits of data per month and are happy with that.

This by the way, rather undermines the argument that owners are simultaneously being starved of small volume options while at the same time demanding boundless volume at ever faster speeds. This is not a one size fits all market.

What owners want is uptime and dependability and if they have their eyes on the ball, they will be thinking about the value-added options available to them and weighing these against trading opportunities.

But no-one should imagine that vast numbers of existing bulk carriers or tankers will be re-fitting with VSAT or FleetBroadband. The fact that many owners have entered zombie territory – reliant on the goodwill of their banks but with little forward earnings momentum – means that all available costs will be cut.

Still satcoms makes up a tiny part of day to day operating expenses, marginal when compared to the cost of 50 tonnes of fuel a day burned by a Capesize bulk carrier hauling ore from Brazil to China.

Almost a year ago, Inmarsat Maritime President Frank Coles suggested the VSAT opportunity might be applicable to perhaps 20,000 of the SOLAS fleet, which by some counts is close to 70,000 vessels. That suggests that the remainder will be divided between higher spending owners and more technical ships and a large rump of users who are happy to use lower volumes at lower prices.

But in fact if owners are prepared to look even a little they will find a universe of applications already optimised for satellite, which can hold down bandwidth usage and cost. If they are serious about increasing data traffic, then there has never been a better time.

Let’s not mistake this for utopia – fair usage policies, committed information rates and the like mean that the internet experience at sea will never be like the experience ashore.

But the fact remains that owners who aren’t prepared to spend money on business communications are missing a trick. Owners who aren’t prepared to offer crew communications will see a direct correlation in the quality of the personnel available to them.

And there is another reason to look beyond the short term timeline. As managed VSAT services supplant L-Band, a new universe of services, applications and traffic management is increasingly opened up.

To continue to believe, even as that era begins to open up, that spending on communications is a necessary evil rather than an opportunity to be grasped, would be an enormous mistake.