I think a good place to begin is by defining a hybrid communications solution, as we see it at e3 Systems. For us it simply means combining two or more external communications sources, to provide connection to the internet for vessels. An effective hybrid solution will also now include a cybersecurity-related component, something being driven by the forthcoming introduction of cyber security into the ISM Code.
We achieve a hybrid solution by combining mainly VSAT and terrestrial 3G/4G, with the option to include Fleet Broad Band, Shore Wi-Fi, or Iridium services. All of these services are connected to a multiple VLAN enabled network, via Kerio bandwidth management device. The user can establish traffic rules, by user, by device, by VLAN, and increasingly by application, to manage the consumption of data in the manner which best suits the needs and the budget of the vessel. Should one means of connectivity become unavailable, such as 4G terrestrial, when the vessel is at sea, then the service automatically switches to the VSAT.
CELLweaver is a brand name for a device which “aggregates” the connection provided by multiple SIM cards, combining data allowances and also speeds, to provide a fast and very high volume data connection using the terrestrial 3G/4G networks.
We have installed a number of aggregators on vessels, which can hold up to 4 SIM cards. They provide a high volume unlimited data package (currently up to 1 TB per month allowances) with a very high speed connection, (maximum seen in our client feedback is 80 Mbps) with the majority of clients achieving above 20 Mbps for the time that they are in range of the cellular network which can be as far as 30km offshore. With the majority of our clients spending a very high percentage of their time in coastal or near coastal waters, this service proves very satisfactory for them.
Regarding hybrid connectivity solutions being “few and far between”, I would say to that that we have over one hundred vessels with hybrid solutions installed.
e3 Systems operates as a type of independent broker in the data connection market place, representing a number of VSAT providers and a number of 3G/4G GSM providers. This is relevant because it means we can offer a solution which best suits a client’s needs without the commercial imperative to promote our own solution, regardless of its relevance. Our Hybrid solution proposals are dependent on a myriad of factors including; cruising areas, the size and nature of the vessel, whether private or charter, the type of applications for which connectivity is required, (video conferencing, gaming, financial trading, business comms, media streaming, social media usage,) the level of flexibility required, the make and model of the hardware in use, the IT Network infrastructure, and the extent to which remote technical support is required.
To say that a good deal on an 100m+ vessel becomes ridiculously expensive on a 50m is very much based upon a client’s appetite for connectivity and the level of compromise they are willing to accept when controlling budgets. As an independent supplier of numerous VSAT and 4G products, we are able to match service to budget in the majority of cases.
Establishing a truly global satellite VSAT coverage is an extremely complex and strategic commercial proposition. Aside from the technical challenges behind establishing and maintaining a network of satellites, and a global network of land earth stations, there is also the complexity of trading across international borders, and the many commercial alliances created to enable the sort of global coverage which is expected by yachting clients. It would be prohibitively expensive to establish the truly global network, with sufficient capacity to meet current and short term future demand. Network owners therefore have to focus their investment towards the markets they service with their satellites.
The majority of the demand for bandwidth is focused on a very small percentage of the world’s surface. So it’s of little surprise that satellite providers focus their efforts on these areas. The same is true of global 4G connectivity. Implementing the network capacity is prioritised to areas of high population density and not the sort of remote locations where many yachting clients like to hide away from the world. In these areas, connectivity relies upon purchasing bandwidth on the few satellites and beams which service these areas.
One of the main drivers behind the costs of global connectivity is that the present capacity of satellite networks is saturated. Supply is struggling to keep up due to the growth in demand for data across 4G networks. This means that the network operators are in a position to charge the prices they do, as the market will accept these costs. A situation that is very likely to change in the near future, with the implementation of the LEO satellite constellation.
In a similar vein, we can look at the source of the demand for the majority of data. Common market intelligence tells us that the superyacht market, (over 24 metres,) runs to about 10,000 yachts worldwide. Of this number, perhaps half are world travelling and demand the type of hybrid, low compromise, global connectivity under discussion. This is a mere drop in the ocean when compared to the hundreds of thousands of clients in other markets demanding VSAT connectivity, such as commercial aviation, oil and gas, cruise, commercial maritime, military, and fishing.
Based upon the way the market for data connectivity is growing exponentially year on year, my best guess for when these solutions will be more affordable for smaller yachts, is that most major networks are currently crunching the numbers on network expansion, increased bandwidth speed and investment in new technology to support the next expansion of the internet.
It is estimated that next generation 5G terrestrial networks will roll out in Europe by mid 2020 accompanied by further increases in speed and coverage which will have a downward pressure on pricing. As the market becomes more demanding in terms of global roaming and flexibility, suppliers will also have to meet these demands or lose their share of lucrative markets.
As to whether we yachts could pay more for a business solution which would then guarantee a priority on the cellular network we have to look at how providers operate. e3 provides European wide roaming SIM cards through the Vodafone network. We also provide similar Caribbean US SIM cards. All GSM network providers differentiate between pre-paid cards, contract holders and visitors to their network, and based upon their business model, allocate priority to one or another segment. As Vodafone is such a prolific player in the GSM market, they have the power to negotiate with other network providers to have priority for their clients on certain networks, but once again, this is a complex and highly strategic global relationship, and involves taking into account the global demand for data across all markets when the negotiations take place. And it’s a viable question to ask if it’s really in the interest of these providers, for whom superyachts make up such a small percentage of their customers.
When it comes to local port infrastructure, this is outside of the control of third parties such as e3 systems and other providers to the market. However, although it is clear that availability of public Wi-Fi is improving, it is well known that the service is often poor, and leaves users vulnerable to cyber crime.
The points regarding ‘waiting for the next revolution’ are well made. We would argue that the revolution is underway as the market continues to evolve and over the next few years both demand and capacity will increase massively; secure and segregated networks will become the norm; TV services will be delivered by IPTV; IT and OT will merge to enable data driven remote management of vessels; and prices of data will drop significantly, driven by demand and supply and implementation of new technologies, such as next-generation antennas and LEO satellites.
We are on the verge of an evolution in communications and information technology, which has been termed the “e-naissance” – but unlike the Renaissance it will probably take a few years, rather than a few centuries. So buckle up, and get ready for the ride!