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Myth Busting VSAT Contracts

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In my experience there are two types of people who read this kind of article, the speed readers who prefer the 'quick start' guide and those who need as much detail as possible and will happily read every page of a manual over and over again.

Unfortunately the demands of online media favour the quick start version, not necessarily the version I prefer, but horses for courses as they say. This article is not exhaustive but I’ll focus on the most important factors to consider when choosing a VSAT Provider in the real world.

Satellite broadband, or VSAT, can seem dauntingly complex to those of us who aren’t ETOs or IT experts so it’s important to try and see things through the eyes of customers and end users. It's also important for providers to tailor solutions to the needs of individual yachts in terms of their practical requirements and budget. 

Predictable Performance & Costs

The least you should expect from any VSAT option is predictable performance and cost, and while certain factors affecting performance, such as weather, are outside our control, there are ways to mitigate the effects.

Three things can potentially result in poorer than expected connectivity and higher than anticipated costs, and these can be easily avoided.

M/Y Excelerate Z arriving in Cannes for onboard demonstrations

VSAT Antennas

For example, always choose the maximum size of antenna that your yacht can accommodate and your budget will allow. Satellite network performance statistics are generally quoted in conditions of clear blue sky so having a larger antenna can make all the difference when conditions are less than perfect.

Alternatively, you can compensate for a smaller antenna by installing one with a larger amplifier, or BUC, as it’s called in the industry.

Contention Ratios

Another common pitfall is your choice of contention ratio, which determines whether your yacht has exclusive bandwidth (1:1) or shared bandwidth (2:1, 3:1, 5:1, 10:1, 20:1 etc.). If a provider controls their own satellite capacity, this can be set at any level to determine the minimum bandwidth or CIR (Committed Information Rate) for an individual modem or yacht.

As a simple illustration, with 1:1 uncontended or unshared bandwidth, a 2Mb download x 1Mb upload service would equate to a CIR of 2048 Kbps download speed x 1024 Kbps upload speed. This can only be adversely affected by factors such as the weather and the size of the yacht’s antenna and BUC.

Due to cost, the majority of yachts choose contended bandwidth. Taking the above example, a 4:1 contended service would normally be approximately one quarter of the price but with a CIR of 512Kbps down x 256Kbps up. The maximum potential bandwidth remains 2048 Kbps x 1024 Kbps but it is impossible to predict how often you would get this with three other yachts sharing the same capacity.

However, if you do know your minimum capacity and usage you can plan and manage user experience accordingly. Also remember you are sharing bandwidth not information so your bandwidth and connection on the VSAT network is private and secure.

It’s important that VSAT providers make this contention clear to customers and it needs to be clearly stated in your contract, otherwise you’ll struggle to monitor or challenge poor performance and you may find yourself locked into a poor or unnecessarily costly service.

VSAT Technician
Getting connected onboard M/Y Excelerate Z

Restricted or Capped Usage

Capped usage can also affect predictability of performance and dramatically inflate costs. If you sign up with a monthly usage limit, you can receive or transmit a certain amount of data up to the contractual limit, and to an untrained eye your allocation may seem generous.

However, it’s vital for captains to understand the level of bandwidth gobbled up by all the applications used onboard, particularly when the owner or guests are onboard. For example, you may have a service whose limits make the streaming or downloading of movies in HD or UHD incredibly expensive and I am aware of some services in the market that make the cost of an HD movie literally $300 a time and a UHD movie more like $4,000 dollars a time, which is utterly ridiculous and avoidable.

Apart from the extreme cost illustrated above, once you reach the usage threshold you are faced with two options. One is to accept that the broadband speed you thought you were getting slows down to something barely usable. The other is to pay additional, typically inflated, charges for the remainder of the month which you did not budget for.

I know from our own customers’ usage that 150 GB per month goes nowhere in the days of the connected yacht and on larger yachts usage often exceeds 1,000Gb on VSAT and maybe 200Gb plus with 4G. Unlike the correct VSAT services, 4G costs are based on usage, but clever management through some clever and simple to use Apps can ensure that even this element is easy to manage and keep costs in check.

I am amazed how many people are either oblivious to the fact or don’t care that by looking around they could save anything from a few thousand dollars for a smaller yacht to tens of thousands of dollars in a single season and probably get a better service too!

David on boad
David Savage, Group Executive Chairman of Excelerate Marine on M/Y Excelerate Z

Contract Duration

Another common hurdle concerns contract duration and change requests to the service you signed up for. This often depends on the benefits originally offered as there’s no such thing as a free lunch. However, in my experience, if you provide great service and great value, customers tend to be loyal, so why do we need long contracts?

There may be seasonal peaks and troughs and spikes in demand when yachts periodically need more capacity, but it takes just minutes to implement a change, so it makes no sense to alienate captains and owners with penalties or premiums.

Choosing Satellite Frequencies - KU and KA

Different frequency ranges distinguish the various satellite offerings on the market, such as C Band and L Band, but KU and KA are the most recent and commonly used on large yachts, especially those where most cruising is offshore or coastal.

KA has grown in popularity because the early technology allowed a satellite to accommodate more users, having multiple smaller spot beams which allow customers to share the same frequency in non-conflicting beams. In layman’s terms these new KA satellites can accommodate more customers per unique investment, bringing the cost down.

KU has also seen the introduction of higher speeds thanks to High Throughput Satellites or HTS, so the different economics are no longer confined to KA, and neither is the use of smaller more numerous spot beams. KU HTS services are already coming online with more compelling economics – faster speeds at lower cost – which is great news for customers, and with Leo and SpaceX this is just the beginning of a lot of changes to the benefit of the customer.

With new builds or refits one has the luxury of being able to choose between the two, there are sound arguments that KU is more resilient in adverse weather due to its frequencies, but KA operators would counter this argument on the basis that they have so much capacity on such powerful satellites that they can mitigate the effects of adverse weather in real time.

The vast majority of yachts currently have perfectly adequate and acceptable KU hardware so changing to a more cost effective provider should not involve much capital expenditure if any.

IMG 8665
M/Y Excelerate Z decked out at the Antibes Raft Race 2018

The fact is that up until now there have been only two reasons why customers would choose KA over KU: KA was faster and cheaper.

Excelerate Marine offers both KU and KA and, although I can offer few arguments as to which is the better service, one of our captains has both KA and KU on the same yacht and despite his KA service being four times the speed of his KU service last season, he swears that KU is the better network.

This season we have given him much faster and cheaper KU capacity which could have saved him two thirds of the cost last season; he’s opted for even faster internet broadband on the same budget. This is still a great example of resilience where line of site problems on both satellites simultaneously is virtually impossible and where we have provided a simple tracking App that shows you in real time how it is all performing.

There is already a more level playing field between KU and KA because both services will be on High Throughput Satellites (HTS) and, assuming factors of geography and price are equal, the real battle will commence. I would like to think that at Excelerate Marine we are impartial, but that doesn’t mean we won’t offer opinions based on the individual needs of our customers.

Please click to enquire about Excelerate Marine's tariffs.

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