Lifting the anchor without losing touch

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Yacht owners enjoy being on the cutting edge, but when it comes to communicating and using the Internet at sea, it seems they’re playing catch-up with landlubbers. On shore, people almost 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—and fast.

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The superyacht Solemates made headlines soon after its introduction last year at the Monaco Yacht Show, not so much for its astounding design and $700,000-per-week base charter rate, as for its innovative onboard electronics system, which allows passengers to control just about every function, short of navigation, via Apple iPad. In fact, according to numerous media reports, charter guests actually receive iPads when they board, which they can use during their stay to play music and videos, adjust climate controls, access the Internet and even link with the navigation system to see where they are while at sea.

iPads and smartphones also are making it easier for captains and owners to monitor a variety of onboard ship functions, as well as security, even when miles away from the ship. Witness the new Capi2 Communicator, a smart communication and alarm-monitoring system introduced late last year by Capi2 Nederland BV. It allows users to monitor virtually any onboard system via an iPad or smartphone, and even keep watch of what’s going on should the ship also have security cameras.

It’s an interconnected world out there and, for that reason, the demand for live, affordable, 24-hour access to the Internet while cruising even thousands of miles offshore has never been greater. Thanks to ever-improving technologies, the day when you can seamlessly move from the dock to the middle of the ocean and maintain fast, affordable Internet access and voice communications capabilities may be close at hand, provided that the fleet of satellites grows fast enough to keep up with demand.

While many yachts and marinas offer Wi-Fi service, charter guests and owners can’t always bank on it for reliable Internet access. For instance, their company network servers may restrict access for security reasons. So, often, the only available solution is to rely one the yacht’s communication system. In a marina, this can create an issue with access and speed, a problem that is also true offshore, unless the vessel subscribes to an unlimited service plan. Cost, however, can be prohibitive. Even with a multiple-month plan, services for unlimited and global Internet and voice service run in the thousands of dollars per month. Not to mention, with more people subscribing to the same services, speed gets slower while the price remains high. This does not sit well with demanding customers who, in many cases, are active in business. In addition, the demand is not limited to Internet and voice access. The ability to stream TV programs and videos is becoming a necessity, especially with the new devices now widely available.

“Being able to download movies and songs has become a must for most guests, but also the availability to stream things like YouTube ­videos is an important feature,” says Line Sidenö, AV/IT engineer of M/Y Helios. “Being able to stream TV is something that’s definitely interesting, as TV coverage is far less reliable and accessible than VSAT.”

Innovative products and systems are popping up every day that can help yacht owners address these needs. Here are just a few recently announced developments.

Ka-band Arrives in 2014

Wireless, satellite-based broadband access gets a major boost starting this year with the launch of commercial Ka-band access, available for the first time this year to commercial providers. Ka-band operates at higher frequencies than ku-, L- and C-band. ViaSat plans to introduce what it calls the first “media-enabled” satellite broadband system to access Ka-band in the fall of 2011 with the planned launch of its ViaSat-1 satellite.

In addition, satellite company Inmarsat is working on a worldwide wireless Ka-band, broadband network called Global Xpress, due to become operational by 2014, once a constellation of three Inmarsat-5 satellites, supplied by the Boeing Company, is in place.

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 in size from two to five feet in diameter, which are 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.

VSA 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.

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 something like “blue sky” a mere 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.

The good news is that each year brings major improvements in service availability and performance, along with dramatic reductions in equipment installation and usage costs. On-the-water broadband still pales in comparison to land-based systems, and prospects may be dim that boaters will soon be able to stream in high-definition via the Internet. Still, today’s systems represent major advances that were unthinkable a decade ago, so it seems fair to say that no one really knows what the future holds.

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