Growing options emerge for ever-increasing data and
In the United States alone, 625 million tons of cargo is
transported along the more than 12,000 miles of commercially
navigable waterways each year, moving vital commodities to and
from 38 of the nation's 50 states. The advent of subchapter M has
raised the bar significantly for as many as 5,000 inland vessels,
both in terms of safety and the need to document and more closely
control this tonnage. At the same time, domestic coastal
transport and offshore energy support vessels also face growing
communications requirements. These include new regulatory
reporting schemes, commercial vessel 'operating software' and, of
course, the requirement for better and cheaper voice comms.
Rising Traffic, Regulatory Pressures also Increase Comms
With the rising amount of activity along inland waterways and the
move to digital systems, barge, ferry and tugboat operators' need
for on board connectivity is increasing. Ensuring vessel
connectivity along inland waterways is different from
connectivity on vessels moving across the open ocean. While in
the ocean, a vessel may only need to worry about a crane or other
piece of onboard machinery obstructing the signal from their
antenna, but with inland waterways, you must add in the
topographic elements of each area the vessel may travel.
The types of solutions for connectivity also differ in this
arena. While near-shore solutions are the most reliable for
inland waterways, a reliable network is essential, no matter how
the connection is successfully obtained. And, while some ports -
take the Port of Pittsburgh's innovative 'wireless waterway'
initiative, for example - are ramping up to improve the user
experience for those desiring connectivity on the rivers, that
sort of effort is still the exception, rather than the rule.
On the inland waterways, a fair amount of vessels are classed as
owner/operators' vessels, where an individual runs a single
vessel, living their lives and running their business on board.
The increase in operating expenses due to higher bunker costs,
combined with low charter rates make it difficult for the owner
and operators to stay in business. This concern is echoed around
the globe, yet the amount of cargo transferred increases year
over year. As implementation of cargo management systems,
environmental reporting systems and engine and power management
systems rapidly increase, the importance of reliable and
cost-effective communications has multiplied, over time.
Challenges to Connectivity
An owner or operator can face challenges when organizing business
communications for their vessel, starting with the lack of buying
power or available budget. Most owner/operators rely on a marine
very high frequency (VHF) radio and a domestic cellular contract
for their business data and calls. Some inland vessels are also
equipped with either Iridium or Inmarsat terminals, but the high
cost of purchase remains a barrier to entry. However, the costs
of satellite terminal purchase and usage are falling slowly.
A domestic cellular plan is an attractive option, and represents
a significant cost advantage when the inland vessel is operating
within a set territory. Travelling outside the domestic zone can
represent higher and sometimes uncontrolled roaming costs. For
example, regional (data only) 4G LTE plans are being released by
operators in the European Union to help mitigate these issues,
offering fixed monthly pricing. Additionally, coverage in remote
areas can be enhanced by adding an external cellular antenna
mounted as high as possible on a vessel. Therefore, a relatively
small investment of a router and external antenna can yield
excellent results, allowing business to continue even in a remote
However, for some inland waterways, even an external cellular
antenna is insufficient to keep in touch. Satellite connectivity
remains the only available option in these areas, but choosing a
service that won't bankrupt an operator remains a challenge.
Choosing the Right Solution
There are numerous mobile satellite service (MSS) operators
available with new services being launched on a regular basis
that can help resolve these issues. However, even within these
major players' product portfolios, the myriad options available
can prove expensive, if not chosen carefully. Additionally, there
is a difference in the user experience between land- and
satellite-based communications. For example, the time lag for the
round trip of a satellite radio signal can range from 600 to
2,000 milliseconds (ms), compared with less than 50 ms for
terrestrial communications. The download and upload speeds are
also significantly slower than that of land, making video
Within the MSS world, there are a few well-known stalwarts that
Speedcast partners with to provide efficient and cost-effective
solutions; namely, Inmarsat, Iridium and Globalstar. With its
fifth generation of geo-stationary satellites providing global
coverage, Inmarsat can be an attractive option for adding
satellite capabilities to an inland vessel. The most appropriate
satellite terminal for inland shipping is the Inmarsat Fleet One.
Providing coastal coverage with voice and data services up to 100
Kbps, Fleet One is an attractive entry level satellite terminal,
with low purchase costs and low monthly running costs.
Separately, Iridium provides Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites
that are constantly circling the globe since the mid-1990s.
Offering affordable voice and low-speed data plans, Iridium and
other third party manufacturers offer a wide range of satellite
terminals that suit almost any requirement. Iridium has launched
its next generation of satellite services, named Certus. This
latest service offers a vast range of connection speeds, starting
with a 350Kbps commercial maritime service in Q3 2017. By 2020,
Certus will offer global speeds from 22 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps, making
it a very attractive future alternative to Inmarsat.
Finally, industries such as government, emergency management,
marine and energy use Globalstar to conduct business smarter and
faster, maintain peace of mind and access emergency personnel.
Globalstar data solutions are ideal for various asset and
personal tracking, data monitoring, supervisory control and data
acquisition (SCADA) and internet of things (IoT) applications.
Satellite communications plans are provided in several different
methods. Entry-level plans are typically for voice calling only,
either pre- or post-paid. Data is normally charged on a
per-megabyte basis, with bundles for an amount of data per month
included. On most entry-level plans, stepping out of a monthly
data bundle can be expensive. Therefore, careful planning of
current and future communications requirements is imperative to
avoid 'sticker shock.' It is also recommended to block specific
data services on cell phones and laptops via satellite. The app
or update blocking can be handled through a communications
management device, providing both the automated switching between
the LTE and satellite equipment.
A communications provider offering a full suite of connectivity
solutions and products might be the ticket for those operators
looking to upgrade or increase their communications capabilities.
Impartial advice on the most appropriate package for your
requirements, preventing bill shock and helping you decide on a
communications package that best fits your needs, is the first
step to also improving your bottom line.
As the Commercial Maritime Product Director of Speedcast, Dan
Rooney is responsible for the innovation and delivery of products
to the commercial maritime sector.
(As published in the November 2017 edition of Marine