When it comes to vital services, the general principle in yachting is that you don’t skimp on price. For a long time, that meant opening your wallet and closing your eyes to get the best of the best. Now in the age of the Internet, broadband tops the list, but how do you choose the right service and control costs?
“Broadband has moved from a novelty to a luxury to a necessity,” says Costas Charalambous, Managing Director of Global Marine Communications (GMC).
As a result, the VSAT market has grown significantly and there is certainly no shortage of broadband solutions being offered these days. Added to this, “The lack of standardization is very evident in the industry,” says Edoardo Zarghetta, owner and director of SkyTech Research.
The market is full of competing broadband providers and competing marketing messages – so much so that it’s easy to end up with the wrong package.
The world of VSAT has changed drastically in the past few years. It’s hard to imagine that broadband only became available onboard yachts a few years prior to that, and it’s still less than a decade since the modern smartphone came about.
And whoever and wherever they are, people simply can’t get enough.
“People want more and more bandwidth – more and more capacity,” says Jeff Jacobson, with MTN Communication’s Yacht Business Development. “They are now onboard with multiple devices, and they expect to have this high-speed connectivity everywhere.”
In addition, they’re also uploading more than ever before, sending regular updates and photos to the parallel universe of social media.
This has meant a couple of things for VSAT providers. It has caused them to restructure packages and satellites in order to accommodate a greater capacity for uploading but, at the same time, it has stretched some of the infrastructure thin – or made it almost cost-prohibitive.
After all, there are multiple providers of maritime-focused satellite communications networks. They are similar to terrestrial-focused networks, including the high costs associated with launch and maintenance, but with one major difference: the pool of potential clients is much smaller.
Added to this, the typical client onboard a superyacht has high expectations and this includes, among other things, being able to post all their pictures onto Facebook right away.
When it comes to finding the right VSAT provider, there are a few very important things to keep in mind.
First and foremost is the question of where you plan to be. If you intend to be based in the Mediterranean all year, you’ll need something quite different compared to a boat cruising Papua New Guinea or French Polynesia.
For example, “The Ka-band satellites are great for vessels that maintain coastal cruising and don’t venture too far”, says Stavros Gianakakis, business development manager with Voyager IP. Meanwhile, “Ku[-band] is perfect for the majority of sea regions,” he says.
Currently, these are the two major satellite bands available, sometimes via dual Ka-Ku antennas, offering a hybrid solution which allows a yacht to switch between services, depending on their location.
However, while this is functional, it also means that the yacht is paying twice the cost of maintaining access to a single satellite band.
Price, speed and.... contention ratios
Once you’ve established your geographic needs, there are really only a few key points to consider: price, speed (both “up” and “down”), and contention ratio.
The price is fairly obvious – although not always indicative of the actual service.
The speed is also fairly self-explanatory. For example, “two meg down by 512 up,” refers to download and upload speeds.
However, the contention ratio is where it gets tricky, because the contention ratio tells you how much your service can be diluted.
Contention ratios are sold in varying forms, including 1:1, which is a dedicated service which is never diluted or shared.
However, let’s say you have an 8:1 contention ratio.
“That means you are sharing that service with another seven boats,” says Charalambous. Which means that, if all eight boats are online at the same time, then each boat will receive a minimum service – a speed divided by eight because it’s being shared. The speed will never dip below this mark, but it will fluctuate depending on how many other clients in the area are online at the same time.
Managing bandwidth (and crew)
As impressive as the Sat-Com technology is, it has its limits. If you’re willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money, then you can purchase a huge package with dedicated service and never worry about it again.
However, it’s a rare owner who’s willing to swallow a $50,000 bill every month without so much as questioning whether something can be done differently.
This is where companies like MTN have come up with creative solutions offering clients more flexibility without the need to pay for additional bandwidth. MTN’s Maestro is a system which allows the captain or electronic technician to control how the bandwidth is being used and by whom.
“It has an application that allows the onboard authorized personnel to set priority rules and thresholds,” says Jacobson. “So all of it could go to the owner when he’s onboard, or you can allow certain levels of access to others.”
Essentially, it allows you to monitor and manage the bandwidth intelligently – allocating it to owners and guests when they need it, and allowing access to crew when spare bandwidth is available. It's more efficient, and has achieved up to 60 percent improvement on bandwidth optimization on some boats, according to Jacobson.
GMC has developed its own bandwidth management system, which Charalambous describes with good humor and effectiveness to crew. He tells them it’s like giving each of them 30 bottles of beer on the first day of each month. That’s their allotment for the month.
Invariably, he is asked what happens if they drink all 30 bottles on the first day.
“Well, aside from having a hangover on the second day,” he says, “you’re not going to have any more beers until 29 days later.”
In the same way, each crewmember is allotted a certain amount of bandwidth each month, and it’s up to them to manage that access.
“We don’t want to stop people from using the internet,” he says. “We’re saying to them: moderate your use of the internet.”
Between land and sea
GMC’s innovative business model does away with the concept of price equaling quality, offering a viable alternative for yachts in certain geographic areas.
The idea is to utilize the land-based satellite networks for the sea.
“It costs a hell of a lot of money to send a satellite up into the sky and then have the technology to have your network operating center in order to be able to receive the signal from the sky,” says Charalambous. “Why not look for a company that already has its infrastructure in place, and provides the same service to land?”
After all, the satellites are 36,000 miles overhead. And while the coverage is designed for land, just think about the meaning of the word “Mediterranean.” It means “between land.”
“Because the sea is in the middle, we’re just utilizing the infrastructure,” says Charalambous. “What we’ve done is take a service that’s already in existence and provide a service to yachts that only stay around the Mediterranean and Europe.”
In reality, GMC’s Mediterranean-based service covers an area from the Canary Islands through to Dubai, and there are similar services for the Caribbean, the Atlantic, North and South America.
The cost savings – up to a quarter of the price of some other services – result from using land-focused satellite bands which have had their infrastructure in use for decades and also have a much larger customer base.
Invariably, Charalambous faces this statement: “It’s cheap; it can't be that good.”
“We get that all the time,” he says. So he offers to put GMC’s modem onboard free-of-charge for two weeks. “If you don’t like it, we will come and take it off. If you do like it, we’ll keep it on and then you’ll pay us…It's as simple as that.”
Of course, the service isn’t right for every yacht. Some yachts need the unencumbered freedom to roam, while others need 24/7/365 support and technical assistance. MTN can get to “anyone, anywhere within 24 hours,” says Jacobson, and in some cases, that's very important.
As with all technologies, market demand shapes development and creates choice, and the status quo is changing. But if you define your needs and pay attention to the small print, there’s likely to be a solution for a quality service without paying over the odds.