Stay connected on the yacht

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On shore, people take for granted the ability to have 24-hour Internet access, digital streaming and the ability to download movies and music in minutes. A mere 100 miles offshore, these services are harder to come by, at least in a dependable and affordable way. However, all this is changing with the advent of new satellites and services.

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Ka-band arrives in 2014

Satellite company Inmarsat is working on a worldwide wireless Ka-band, broadband network called Global Xpress, which will become operational once a constellation of three Inmarsat-5 satellites, supplied by the Boeing Company, is in place, hopefully by 2014. Ka-band’s greater bandwidth capabilities allow for download rates of as high as 50 Mbps and upload rates of about 5 Mbps. That is comparable to the fastest systems available to land-based broadband users. Accessing the network will require antennas ranging from two to five feet in diameter, smaller than those typically used for C-band and other lower-frequency communications. Inmarsat’s new fleet of geostationary satellites will complement its existing network of L-band satellites, according to Frank August, Inmarsat’s director of business development for the Americas. “Right now, speeds in the L-band are measured in the hundreds of kilobits per second, 300 kb, 400 kb per second,” August says. “Ka-band will be measured in megabits per second.” August says Global Xpress will be a worldwide network allowing for a variety of high-speed Internet services, including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications, SMS services and more. “Our customers will have the capability to really do anything they want,” he says. “They’ll be well connected around the world.”

FleetBroadband Access

Inmarsat touts FleetBroadband as the world’s first worldwide, maritime communications service to provide cost-effective, broadband data and voice communications simultaneously through one compact antenna. Developed primarily for commercial maritime users, and based on 3G standards, FleetBroadband provides constant, simultaneous access to voice and high-speed data services. And it is accessible pretty much anywhere in the world. Users can send and receive e-mail with large file attachments, run complex data applications and make voice calls at the same time—and at a lower cost than with older systems. Installation of terminals is also relatively easy. Three terminal types are available: In addition to the FB500 and FB250, a new FB150 terminal is designed specifically for small- to medium-size vessels. The new FleetBroadband FB150 service delivers global voice IP data up to about 150 kbps and features SMS capabilities. Inmarsat designed it as a more cost-effective alternative to its other two terminal systems, although data rates are considerably slower. Still, it offers recreational mariners worldwide 24/7 voice and Internet access.

Mini-VSAT

It has been almost four years since KVH Industries unveiled its revolutionary mini-VSAT broadband network and compact TracPhone V7 hardware. More than 1,000 TracPhone V7 systems have been shipped since the product’s introduction, according to KVH.

Now the company has expanded its product offering with the introduction of the new TracPhone V3. At only 15.5 inches in diameter, it offers a simple metered airtime plan of $0.49 per minute for all voice calls worldwide and $0.99 per megabyte at the fastest available speeds via the mini-VSAT Broadband network. KVH also has said this new, streamlined metered pricing program will be offered to all new mini-VSAT Broadband subscribers, whether they are using a TracPhone V3 or V7.

KVH has created a range of packages designed to support monthly data needs. In addition to the new metered rate plans, KVH also offers boaters a fixed-price plan and seasonal airtime options.

Offering much faster connection speeds and affordable airtime, mini-VSAT and its rapid global expansion recently won honors from the Mobile Satellite Users Association, which presented KVH with its 2011 MSUA Innovation Award.

The company made tremendous progress throughout 2010 and in early 2011 to improve mini-VSAT capacity in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Indian Ocean, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. The company now offers what it says is the only multi-megabit Ku-band global network for ships and planes.

KVH designed the mini-VSAT Broadband network from the ground up and set out to be the first next-generation maritime satellite communications solution. The global spread spectrum satellite network, built with ViaSat’s patented ArcLight technology, offers voice service and Internet access as fast as 512 kbps (ship to shore) and 2 Mbps (shore to ship).

Wired Ocean (TVRO)

Wired Ocean’s S-Box, or satellite broadband server terminal, uses a vessel’s television antenna (so-called TVRO) to offer a low-cost broadband service through Ku-band broadcast satellites. It operates on the idea that most Internet use involves sending smaller amounts of data (uplink) than receiving (downlink). Most satellite broadband services handle the smaller transmissions just fine but get bogged down when receiving larger amounts of data, which require higher transfer rates. This limited capacity, or bandwidth, often results in slower speeds and higher usage costs.

Through what it calls a “hybrid technology” that integrates mobile satellites and television broadcast satellites, Wired Ocean can offer high-speed Internet service to marine users at a lower cost. Basically, through its S-Box terminal, the system uses a vessel’s satellite TV antenna for the downlink portion of transmission, while using standard satellite communications systems (FleetBroadband, VSAT, etc.) for the uplink.

The service is suited for high-volume applications, including Internet browsing, downloading e-mail with attachments, obtaining electronic manuals, and accessing weather and navigation data. Wired Ocean’s S-Box makes switching to the system fairly affordable since it uses existing onboard communications systems.

In January 2010, Thrane & Thrane agreed to consider the system for integration with its SAILOR communications terminals and systems.

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Dishing It Out Fast

Irvine, Calif.-based Intellian, whose executives have witnessed a 100-percent increase in demand year-to-year, recently expanded its offering in VSAT communication antennas. Its most recent antenna is also its smallest to date, as it is specifically designed for the smaller vessel markets. The three-axis, v60G antenna is based on an open platform and supports 4-, 6- and 8-watt BUCs (Block Up-Converter). This means owners can choose the service and communications speeds they want. It is designed to avoid signal interruption and is thus well suited, according to the manufacturer, to VoIP communication, data download and monitoring.

Things to Consider

As with anything electronic, today’s innovation is tomorrow’s dinosaur. That’s especially true with marine communications systems. Mariners already are starting to take for granted services that were considered impossible achievements 10 years ago. Back then, the idea of 24/7, high-speed broadband communications availability while hundreds or thousands of miles offshore was still on the drawing board. Now it’s a must.

There’s so much to consider that it is easy to be overwhelmed. The best advice is: Buyer Beware—especially when it comes to satellite speed claims. It is well worth the effort to do exhaustive homework and consult with satellite communications experts.

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