Terminal connections evolve with new satcoms offerings

May 01 2014

The market for maritime satcoms services for ships and indeed tankers is moving fast.

New deals, packages and solutions vying for the shipowner and operator market are announced with predictable regularity – reflecting how Internet is expected to be ubiquitous – even at sea.

Faster connections, bigger data allowances, better coverage and improved functionality all serve to enhance vessel and fleet operations and crew welfare, so the speed at which the market moves can only be positive for tanker owners and operators.

But regardless of the quality of services and the various network infrastructures that enables them, one link in the chain brings everything together – the on board satellite terminal – or antenna, as it is often referred to.

Cobham SATCOM claims to know a lot about maritime satellite terminals. The company is a combination of two of the largest players in the maritime communications field during the past 30 years: Sea Tel and Thrane & Thrane. Cobham acquired Sea Tel in 2003 and Thrane & Thrane in 2012. The latter managed the SAILOR product line of maritime radio communication, which dates way back into 1960s.

Today, Cobham SATCOM develops and markets maritime satcom terminals for VSAT (very small aperture terminal) and MSS (mobile satellite services) under both the Sea Tel and SAILOR brands. Sea Tel is a pioneer of vessels’ stabilised antennas, having built the first Inmarsat-A antennas (L-band) in the 1980s and then moving its capabilities into satellite TV and VSAT (Ku, C, X-bands) since the 90s.

SAILOR meanwhile has dominated them Inmarsat L-band MSS terminal market since the beginning of the century. Well over 100,000 Inmarsat-C terminals have been installed and with more than 20,000 SAILOR Fleet  and more than 35,000 SAILOR FleetBroadband terminals shipped, the brand has become the de facto industry standard for Inmarsat’s popular L-band services. FleetBroadband currently features heavily in the tanker sector, with a huge number of vessels benefiting from the up to 432kbps connectivity it offers.

But times change and today, with ever increasing and maturing satellite coverage, VSAT services are also beginning to penetrate the tanker sector. While talk of VSAT often comes down to increased bandwidth – more speed – perhaps the more important benefit of Ku-band VSAT is that unlike MSS, it is not a ‘pay per MB’ service  and offers more throughput for the same, or less money. VSAT users receive a single predictable monthly bill, meaning budgets can be set and use of on board connectivity can be managed better – therefore increasing functionality for operations and offering improved, but usually less costly voice calling and Internet service to crew members.

Simplifying VSAT

With Sea Tel being first to the maritime market with stabilised VSAT antennas over 20 years ago, its Cobham SATCOM stable mate entered the scene much later. So, though SAILOR is generally recognised for high quality  design and manufacture, the engineers needed to have something to ensure SAILOR had the same impact on VSAT, as it did on MSS. Unlike for instance, FleetBroadband, VSAT traditionally was not a fit and forget affair.

Recognising that the process of VSAT procurement and maintenance can be complex and time consuming, due to needing to source and integrate components – antenna, RF components from multiple manufacturers, modem, router, etc – from different suppliers, the product team saw an opening that would significantly help VSAT service providers and end-users.

In 2012, the SAILOR 900 VSAT antenna system was launched. It was designed and developed from a clean slate with high performance, ease-of-use and global serviceability in mind. This superior performance enables a  maritime service provider to deliver higher bandwidth, better quality and availability of service, Cobham claimed. However, one of the key values SAILOR 900 VSAT offers is its ability to eliminate much of the complexity often associated with maritime VSAT projects.

The SAILOR 900 VSAT requires no evaluation, planning, procurement, or installation of RF components – it’s all built in – making it the ideal solution for standardised VSAT installations and services; the kind that are most suitable for tankers. Sea Tel VSAT antennas are more regularly used for customised solutions with specific high power requirements, normally for other ship types such as offshore, or cruise liner projects.

With the SAILOR system, the need for labour-intensive testing and balancing of the antenna is removed as Cobham SATCOM installs universal RF-components and live tests the antenna during production so that it will work on any Ku-band service, anywhere. The importance of this cannot be understated; it really is a step change in the world of maritime VSAT, which makes it a far more attractive prospect to potential users, the company stressed.

To accommodate this approach, an antenna testing and simulation facility was built at the Cobham SATCOM HQ  in Lyngby, just outside Copenhagen. Critical to the success of the ‘Advanced Dynamics Simulator’ facility and SAILOR 900 VSAT was obtaining real vessel data using special measurement equipment deployed on board various vessels.

It recorded heading, roll, pitch, yaw, acceleration, position, temperature and random vibrations data, which was then fed into a multi-axis hydraulic motion testing and simulation platform that replicated exactly the movement of any vessel.

Using real vessel motion and conditions, while connected to a live satellite provided a realistic long-term testing ground, which supported live sea trials and enabled a huge amount of data to be acquired in a relatively short period, which is an important factor as it enabled Cobham SATCOM to overcome the limitations that antenna manufacturers face on carrying out live testing during the development phase.

Following on from the success that this approach created for SAILOR 900, Cobham launched a smaller version, which will be suitable for installation on smaller vessels, or when a vessel is operating regionally, for instance, shuttle tankers of any size. Test facilities at Eutelsat and extensive tests at teleports have confirmed that at 83 cm, it provides the same radio performance as other antennas in the 1 m class.

The result is an antenna capable of delivering more bandwidth compared to competing 80 cm antennas, while  being easy to install and using less real estate on board. It is based on the same technology as the 900 VSAT, which itself sets good performance standards within the 1-1.2 m antenna sector. Cobham’s newest Ku-band VSAT antenna offers the same benefits as the 900 VSAT, in terms of simple procurement and installation in addition to good RF performance, the company said.

Fast forward to 2014 and the world of VSAT is changing. The SAILOR VSAT platform is being used to inform a  new line of SAILOR antennas for the Inmarsat Global Xpress service, which will offer full global service availability in 2015. Global Xpress is a new service, which is using Ka-band for high throughput and  bandwidth, with FleetBroadband for redundancy with out-of-band-management as standard.

Customers will pay a flat rate similar to VSAT services but including the redundancy of the Lband service.

The new SAILOR 100 GX sports a 103 cm reflector dish and is aimed at Cobham SATCOM and Inmarsat’s core global shipping customers. The compact SAILOR 60 GX features a 65 cm reflector dish making it suitable for enabling Global Xpress’ high bandwidth connectivity on a wide range of smaller vessels.

The first GX terminals will be available during summer 2014, to help to ensure that Cobham SATCOM’s maritime service provider partners can begin installing the systems on customer vessels for Inmarsat’s commercial service introduction. Both new terminals continue the ‘all-in-one, ready-to-go’ approach introduced with the 900 VSAT antenna. It was a natural step to employ this for the launch of Global Xpress to ensure simplicity and high reliability for service providers and shipowners, Cobham said.

Global Xpress isn’t the only high-throughput service in the offing. Intelsat will launch EpicNG in 2016 reinforcing globally available Ku-band networks with several more satellites and high power beams providing very focused bandwidths in highly dense areas like the Great Circle routes across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and offshore energy hot spots. Telenor will also launch Ka-band services on its new THOR 7 satellite.

Cobham’s SAILOR VSAT antennas have been approved for operation on the existing Kuband, as well as the forthcoming THOR 7 Kaband satellite from Telenor Satellite Broadcasting (TSBc). THOR 7, TSBc’s latest satellite, is expected to be launched in the fourth quarter of this year and is equipped with a Kaband HTS payload. The SAILOR 800 and 900 VSAT have been approved to support Ku-band services on the existing THOR fleet while SAILOR 900 Ka and the new SAILOR 800 Ka will be compatible with THOR 7.

Covering the 1 deg West region, THOR 7’s Ka-band capacity is strategically positioned overthe main shipping routes in Europe and major oil and gas exploration and production areas, including the North Sea. The THOR 7 Ka-band HTS payload offers 6-9 Gbps throughput with  up to 25 simultaneously active spot beams.

Services will offer reliable speeds in the tens of Mbps downlink, even from small antennas. Uplink speeds will be anywhere from 2Mbps to 6Mbps depending on antenna size. Service reliability is key, with TSBc implementing a package of solutions to mitigate rain fade on Ka-band, including a new uplink site in Norway to provide antenna site diversity.

THOR 7’s Ka-band HTS payload has been specifically designed for the mobility VSAT market, offering highly concentrated and high powered coverage over TSBc’s main market area, including the North Sea, Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea. Approval of Cobham SATCOM’s Maritime VSAT antennas for THOR 7 strengthens a longstanding cooperation between the companies and is testament to the standardisation approach it has for SAILOR antennas, Cobham claimed.

When looking at next generation VSAT, it’s important to note that Ku-band services already have the potential to deliver very high throughput, with near global coverage on a very cost effective basis. So though Ka-band services are currently in the spotlight, standardised Kuband services will continue to be an important option for tanker owners.

Regardless of the satellite operator or service, Cobham SATCOM VSAT users will be among the first to benefit from the power of HTS with innovative, reliable Ka-, Ku- and Ka/Ku-band antennas from both SAILOR and Sea  Tel already prepared for the next generation of maritime VSAT services., the company concluded.

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