There have been some puzzling headlines in the past week or so following the decision by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to give recognition to the bid by satellite services provider Iridium to run the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.
The IMO sub-committee on Navigation, Communications, Search and Rescue (NSCR) gave the nod to Iridium’s pitch, which will be subject to approval by the Maritime Safety Committee, though probably not before 2016.
It’s true to say that the surprise has been pretty evenly-distributed around the industry. Certainly, there will have been something close to bewilderment at the headquarters of INMARSAT, which runs GMDSS under mandate from the IMO and which will have been lobbying hard to get the proposal squashed.
The surprise in communications circles is largely due to the apparent mis-match between the requirement the IMO places on INMARSAT for GMDSS uptime of 99.99% and the performance of the existing Iridium network.
Despite its somewhat chequered history: a big launch, a spell in Chapter 11, rescue by the US Department of Defence, and resurgence as the appetite for low cost communications broke over shipping – ship owners like Iridium. The products themselves are cheap and cheerful; Iridium was among the first to identify the potential for what was then called “commodity voice communications” – selling handsets and airtime that could keep seafarers in touch at very low per minute rates.
This was because Iridium needed something to do with its global network of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in addition to the capacity that the US military was using. In time, data products followed and the same principle applied – they were cheap, easy to use and easy to fix when broken.
This was good for owners who didn’t want to spend a lot on their communications but just needed something on board. The data transfer rates weren’t high either but the owners weren’t necessarily worried.
Slightly more problematic was that its network of LEO satellites – rather more complex than a handset – had an equally creaky reputation in practice. Iridium’s engineers have done admirable work prolonging the working life of its constellation but even with the use of spares, outages are a regular occurrence. Since 2001, iridium has lost 10 satellites from its 66 strong constellation, nine from technical failures, one a collision.
Its fiercest critics say that in areas of greatest ship congestion, heavy demand results in the network being unable to cope and like a weak Wi-Fi signal in a conference room, the contention is such that no-one gets any service.
This must be subject to some question, since Iridium services still sell well, but no hardware manufacturer or service provider is likely to admit that any delicate shipboard technology, whether comms or navigation, is subject to operational failure. You have to talk to seafarers to get to hear that and normally they make you buy them lots of beer first.
But it is important in the light of the sub-committee’s decision because GMDSS is not a commercial service but rather a safety one, mandated by the IMO and one that all SOLAS ships are required to fit and maintain. For that to happen, the IMO demands a level of uptime that the current Iridium constellation appears unable to achieve.
No doubt Iridium is able to produce statistics that confirm it hits 99.99% availability, just as its rivals can produce data saying the opposite, but it is the spread between what its commercial service can manage and the IMO-mandated requirement that raises eyebrows.
Incumbent GMDSS operator INMARSAT has been left spluttering by the decision, which it presumably believes rather undermines the goals it has been set in providing GMDSS since 1979. INMARSAT has also formally unveiled its own evolution of GMDSS, called the Maritime Data Safety Service (MSDS) which will “upgrade” the service onto more its modern I-4 satellites.
Iridium plans a similar development and wants to launch an entirely new network, NEXT comprising 72 satellites from 2015 onwards, with service availability from 2017 onwards. Its key differentiator here is the polar coverage its current and future networks can provide and Inmarsat’s cannot. Iridium will need to get capacity utilisation on this new network too – it plans aeronautical in addition to maritime and land services for NEXT and will need to keep pace with the next generation VSAT and HTS services that will be in place by then.
It appears that the potential for ship traffic in the Polar Regions was among the swaying evidence considered at the IMO. Whether or not the growth potential of the Northern Sea Route is really enough to convince the MSC that this makes enough of a difference is questionable enough in itself. A recent survey by consultants PWC of German ship owners found that 60% saw no fresh opportunities from the NSR’s opening up.
What is far more dangerous surely is for any would-be operator to view GMDSS as a prize, an opportunity that has for too long been under the control of one of its rivals. Some of the coverage of the IMO decision (to say nothing of the comments on social media sites that specialise in pushing commercial interests over public ones) suggest just that.
No-one can credibly assert that Inmarsat has “control” of a service that it was created to deliver under the mandate of the IMO. GMDSS has nothing to do with commercial maritime services like broadband, VSAT or HTS. It is a public service dedicated to the safety of the world’s 1.5m seafarers.
Should the provision of such a service be subject to competition and to the vagaries of national interests? Or should any future decision instead be based on the facts and made in the light of day. Assuming that the IMO has not changed its baseline of 99.99% network uptime, does the proposed service meet the requirement or not?
My editor at BIMCO kindly added the following clarification to the article as published on its website.
Editor’s Note: The NCSR Sub-Committee agreed to invite the MSC to consider and decide on which independent body should produce a technical and operational assessment of the information and provide a report to the sub-committee for evaluation. Following receipt and evaluation of the assessment, the sub-committee would then make a recommendation to the MSC as to the adoption of an MSC resolution recognising the new maritime mobile satellite services provider.