Accelerating Capability At Sea

Stephen Conley,
Maritime Market Segment Lead, SES Networks

Smaller, faster, less expensive. That’s the history of technology in a nutshell. The biggest consequence of these three developments is the additional access more people have gained to it. Most prominently, we’ve seen it in computers, where huge mainframes that were only available for a select few evolved into personal computers, tablets and smartphones.

There are now nearly 2.5 billion smartphones on Earth, and that number is heading rapidly toward parity with the global population. But even with all that capital invested, connectivity isn’t universal. It’s a comparable story in shipping for a very similar reason: It’s not a simple problem. Getting internet access to remote regions requires substantial up-front costs, genuine market knowledge and years of technological expertise. On land, remote connectivity can be achieved through three ways: trenching fiber, point-to-point microwave towers or satellites. Needless to say, far out at sea, only the last of those is viable.

The challenge ships have today is getting connectivity at a speed that achieves the full potential of the ships’ digital technologies at a price point that doesn’t stifle return on capital invested. At the end of February, SES Networks demonstrated such connectivity capabilities at sea with a demonstration on board a cruise liner that verified a speed of more than 1 Gbps. In March, we continued our investment program with the launch of another four medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellites, expanding our O3b constellation that delivers fiber-like connectivity. It was a very special moment watching them launch into orbit. The real magic, however, will be translating what happens in the sky into real impact on Earth. Connectivity opens a world of opportunities. This is why we’re building: to expand the frontier of opportunity.

Whereas business insight has traditionally been about historical aggregates (How many tonnes of marine gas oil did my ship burn between Felixstowe and Rotterdam?), we’re now seeing operators with the technology to answer much more interesting questions (How many tonnes of marine gas oil will my ship burn between Felixstowe and Rotterdam given the prevailing weather conditions?). One important implication of this is how the computer science field of machine learning is becoming a property of every application—not just an activity in itself. Enterprise applications will become more intelligent with every voyage as the machine studies data patterns and develops insights. But all of this forces, and benefits from, innovation at the infrastructure level.

The long and the short of it is that no shipowner or charterer will pay extra for semantics. Connectivity needs to be reliable, always available and ensure high-speed throughput. Providers that can offer multi-orbit (GEO and MEO) satellite-enabled connectivity solutions in multiple bands (Ka-, Ku- and C-band) will have the edge by being able to flexibly deliver the capacity that shipowners, operators and seafarers need to make better informed commercial decisions and enable them to remain competitive in an increasingly challenging and commoditized marketplace.

The 2020s will be shipping’s first fully data-enabled decade, and success will come down to one simple, repeating loop: collect, analyze, predict. DNV GL estimates that, in two years, the data capacity of the VSAT network has increased from 8.7 to 16.5 Gbps—nearly doubling. If this trend continues—and there’s no reason to think it won’t from what we’re seeing in terms of capacity usage—this capacity will reach 217 Gbps by 2025.

We’re at the threshold of a significant acceleration in the capability of ships and shipping. In the same way that computing power is no longer the preserve of multinationals and governments, access to high-speed connectivity anywhere at sea is now available to all. The potential of every application is growing but will quickly reach a hard ceiling without the right supporting infrastructure.