Every three or sometimes four years, representatives from around 190 countries get together to undertake the thankless task of reviewing and revising the international treaty governing the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and geostationary-satellite and non- geostationary-satellite orbits.
The event generally passes with little fanfare, with scant coverage in the maritime world. But scrape the surface and you’ll find battle lines being drawn for existing and planned bandwidth – and the maritime sector is ready to fight for its needs in a world intent on delivering connectivity to all.
Shipping relies on radio spectrum allocation for navigation, for distress and safety communication, for on-board communication and, no less importantly, for social communication between crews and family and friends ashore. In the run-up to the World Radiocommunications Conference 2019 (WRC-19) IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim set out the issue plainly: “For the shipping industry to function effectively, safely and sustainably, and to protect the marine environment, communication systems are fundamental.”
Following the event, an IMO spokesperson commented to MP that there was a need to include the frequency band in use by Iridium to enable Iridium to provide Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) satellite services in the Radio Regulations.
WRC-19 agreed that and has included the frequency band 1621.35–1626.5 MHz in Appendix 15 of the Radio Regulations, which lists the frequencies for distress and safety communications for GMDSS. “This decision was absolutely needed to allow Iridium to operate as GMDSS satellite service provider,” said IMO.
Just as important, however, is that this particular frequency band is to be upgraded to primary status for downlink (space-to-earth), which means maximum regulatory protection against harmful interference from other services in this or adjacent frequency bands.
One of the main objectives of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), organiser of the WRC, is to accommodate new radio applications and to provide additional frequency spectrum for existing radio systems in case their requirements for radio bandwidth increase.
This objective applies equally to maritime communications as for other wireless systems, such as mobile, aeronautical, satellite and so on.
Maritime communications related to safety of life, which operate under GMDSS, already have special protection in the ITU Radio Regulations because of their importance in tracking ships, boats and aircraft in distress and for rescues.
Several frequencies designated for distress and safety communications can be used only for these purposes and any other transmissions on such frequencies are prohibited.
However, it’s not just safety of life that has relevance for communications.
Other maritime communications, including transmitting personal information or service data, such as daily reports from fishing vessels, also use the frequency bands designated by ITU for maritime systems.
“Clearly, such systems are evolving and often required to transmit larger volumes of information, especially data,” acknowledges Nikolai Vassiliev, chief of the terrestrial services department at the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau. He sees two main solutions to this problem.
“The first is to use modern digital technologies that are capable of transmitting larger volumes of information in the same bandwidth and are robust enough to prevent interference,” he says.
“Secondly, when new maritime requirements cannot be met in the existing frequency bands, the maritime community, via national telecommunication authorities, may ask for additional spectrum at a WRC. Such additional spectrum could be designated at a subsequent WRC.”
The same mechanism allows for the protection of maritime radiocommunication systems from any newcomer who wants to use the maritime frequency bands.
Satellite communications specialists understand the challenges that the maritime industry faces when it comes to broader connectivity.
Carole Plessy, head of maritime product development at satellite connectivity company OneWeb, complains of a current model of on-board internet for the maritime industry that is “one-size-fits-all”, forcing ships to divide up a fixed amount of broadband capacity to facilitate all critical systems.
“This requires prioritising some operational functions over others, including automated networks for situational awareness systems and critical system updates,” she says. “On top of diminishing overall safety, this prioritisation has the knock-on effect of decreasing the efficiency of operations and, therefore, of business.”
Further down the priority list, remaining maritime Internet must be carved up between everything from crew social media to maintenance.
Plessy notes that catering to increasing demands for internet use in mobile devices – for video streaming and cloud applications for carrying out work and keeping in touch with families while at sea – requires a step change in both bandwidth and speed.
More satellite bandwidth for the maritime sector would open it up to a world of more advanced ship functions – ship automation, predictive analytics and on-board internet of things (IoT) operations on an industrial scale.
“However, maritime connectivity needs more capacity and speed to unlock the benefits of Industry 4.0,” Plessy says.
As well as IoT, predictive analytics and maintenance, smarter ships offer a way for operators to meet ever-growing demands for productivity, profitability and cost-efficiency, according to Chris Insall, senior principal product manager, maritime services, at satellite communications services provider Intelsat.
“They’re also aiding in employee recruitment and retention, providing crew members with access to real-time information for enhanced health, education and entertainment options, as well as helping them stay connected with their families back home.”
Bandwidth takes centre stage
Data-hungry maritime applications, combined with the additional number of mobile devices that seafarers are taking on board, mean the demand for bandwidth is growing and will only continue to grow.
Insall cites statistics from Euroconsult that highlight that capacity for maritime applications is expected to grow at a 30% compound annual growth rate over the next 10 years, from 27Gbps in 2018 to 370Gbps in 2028. Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout adds to the dataset, explaining that six years ago the average consumption of data for one ship was around 5GB.
“Analysis of our customers undertaken earlier in 2019 showed that the mean figure had reached around 270GB, and we expect that to have doubled by the end of 2019.”
Some fleet managers are already asking for more than 1TB per month.
There’s a further wrinkle to consider. Compliance with stricter environmental regulations requires rigorous emissions and speed monitoring and reporting – all of which call for greater bandwidth.
If the industry is to truly maximise the efficiency and sustainability of vessels there needs to be significant growth in capacity.
While on a global basis satellite capacity is not scarce – and more will become available – the challenge, says Tore Morten Olsen, president of maritime at Marlink, is how to optimise new applications and usage patterns to enable the digital transformation of the maritime industry.
Marlink, a provider of end-to- end managed connectivity and IT solutions, plans years ahead to secure capacity and can therefore be sure of a decent outlook on availability, but it recognises that bandwidth and frequencies for maritime users are currently limited resources.
Marlink relies on hybrid solutions, connecting customers using all major satellite networks and services, to ensure bandwidth is always available, regardless of location or load on any specific network.
OneWeb’s service is underpinned by 5G technology and a constellation of low-earth-orbit satellites, which will provide 10 times the bandwidth, with very low latency and customisable connectivity wherever they are in the world.
This, says Plessy, will ensure transformative technologies for the sector, including cloud solutions, IoT and automation, are easily implemented and not left as an afterthought.
“By doing so we will start to overcome the long- standing challenges faced by the maritime industry due to insufficient connectivity. Connectivity is the backbone of digitalisation and sustainability for maritime.”
Inmarsat, meanwhile, operates a fleet of 11 geostationary satellites, of which five are Global Xpress units offering high-speed broadband via Ka-band connectivity. Eight new GX satellites will enter service over the next three years, bringing the largest addition to global maritime communications in a decade and expanding broadband into the Arctic.
“GX5 will enter commercial service in early 2020 and will deliver additional, focused broadband capacity over Europe and the Middle East that will amount to more than the existing four satellites in the Global Xpress network worldwide put together,” says Spithout.
The first of the next satellites in the series – GX7, GX8 and GX9 – is due in geostationary orbit in 2022.
“These satellites will use software to manage the size and direction of their beams, which effectively means connectivity throughput can respond dynamically to fleet movements.”
Agreement has also been reached with Space Norway for two further GX satellites – GX10a and GX10b – to be loaded on Arctic satellites operating in elliptical orbit.
“Connectivity in the Arctic region is growing in importance as ships transit new waterways,” says Spithout. “Users will have seamless, high-quality mobile broadband services as they travel in and out of the region and the enhancement will be fully backwards-compatible, providing the connectivity our customers need now and into the future.”
Marlink’s Olsen remarks that it is “very good to see” that more investment is going into new networks that will come online during the next few years.
“Connectivity services on these networks have the headline advantage of offering lower latency, which will help maritime operators to experience improved real-time applications and cloud services,” he says.
They will also provide a massive influx of bandwidth for maritime users, ensuring that it will be a readily available resource for years to come.
But is the industry simply running to catch up?
While the planned bandwidth increases will go a long way towards meeting the demands of crew connectivity and operational data analysis, there are other future needs to consider.
“With maritime routes continually shifting, it’s also difficult to forecast future demand for shipping services and bandwidth requirements in each region,” explains Insall. “Shipping companies need a flexible solution that responds to the specific needs of their fleet.
“Additionally, as shipowners and operators continue to add more business-critical applications to their vessels, these applications require the highest level of information protection and cybersecurity.”
Add to this the demand for ‘always-on’ connectivity and there is an evident need for scalable solutions that are compatible with existing and future technologies.
Few can dispute the investments being made in global connectivity, but as Inmarsat’s data attests to, demand can dramatically change in just a few short years.
With a global fleet of 96,000 ships and growing, data demand by 2025 is likely to be eye watering by current standards.
Author: Carly Fields
This report was originally published in Marine Professional March/April 2020