Industry » Technology » Yacht Internet » Stalemate in VSAT: Crying out for innovation

Stalemate in VSAT: Crying out for innovation

Edoardo Zarghetta

Had I been a user of satellite communications I would have been disappointed by Mets 2013. To be more precise, disappointed with the lack of developments, not with the show itself.

But the manufactures and the satellite service providers… really? It felt like I was walking alongside the Humber in York a thousand year ago, a perfect display of what life looked like in medieval times.

They must have forgotten that communications onboard yachts are for the working and recreational pleasures of the lucky ladies and gentlemen who inhabit these vessels, otherwise why would they complicate things so much? Let me clarify:

Manufacturers don’t merge; you still have to go ‘touring the seven churches’ (as Italians say for window shopping), in order to get an idea of what’s new and what’s worth putting onboard: a large number of manufacturers for a relatively small market.

Terminology has exploded; every conversation at the METS stands was conducted in encrypted two-three letter words in a language no customer wants to hear: far too technical compared with terrestrial mobile communications.

Standards have boomed; you can now use your mobile phone onboard with so many constellations of satellite that you’ll be persuaded to want: Ka, Ku, C, Flee Broadband, Global X-press, or a mix of them all…give us a break.

Prices are all over the shop; you go from eight cents per megabyte to two-thousand four-hundred Euros flat rate per month. Surely that would flatten anyone for a while.

It’s not surprising that no communication equipment was awarded a DAME Design Award, which were granted instead to “companies showcasing products that could make a genuine difference in their market.”

The reason I am rattling so much is that after fourteen years in the industry, as a manufacturer and a service provider, I wish I had seen things coming together more, a bit of merger and acquisition, streamlining of standards, a focus on clients as users. And yet this is not happening. Instead we have to get used to this huge variety, a jungle of satcom offerings that is overwhelming. I just hope that in markets where demand is picking up again, we will finally see some activity from the big guys willing to buy innovation and/or market share.

Back to the show, I toured the stands of the major antenna manufacturers, some of which also offered bundled airtime solutions. The first thing to report is that I noticed two major companies playing truant: Cobham-Seatel and Inmarsat, two global leaders shunning over twenty-thousand international marine industry professionals in one go!

The biggest player I met was KVH, showcasing the integration of their mini-broadband system with C-band for truly global broadband communications. It comes in a 1.2 x 1.4 metre dome, one hundred and nine kilograms of technology to provide up to 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up; a bit of an elephant delivering a mouse (another Italian expression). The antenna is well manufactured; it looks resistant and well designed, with maintenance in mind, easy access to parts, and probably the reason behind the larger dome. KVH also offers airtime with their antennas, billed by usage, and from what I’ve heard from users, it can be expensive. KVH also offers value added services such as weather, videos and newspapers, but I haven’t seen much traction around these.

The second largest company in the sector, Intellian, was showcasing an impressive range of antennas for Ku, Ka and C-band application. The rise of this manufacturer has been impressive. Field reports on their antennas are mixed but, overall, they are good products, now coming with a vertical damping system. They also work with different modems and Intellian will not offer you airtime. One thing I noticed is that they have been offering the same upgrade kit from Ku to Ka-band for two years, suggesting that their Ka-band service has been delayed again.

Skytech presented a 75 centimeter Ka-band antenna, compact, light and easy to install, requiring only two cables: Ethernet and power. The antenna is designed around the new mTria modem from ViaSat to work on Eutelsat and ViaSat satellites in the Med and the Caribbean. The antenna design looked outstanding though very compressed in a small dome for the size of the dish, meaning access to some parts may be challenging.

When I went to the KNS stand, other than the unfriendly reception (yes, I write for OnboardOnline but I wear the competition T-shirt), I noticed that the design of the antennas has not changed for many years, hence no news to report here. Moving on to the last dot on the map, I visited German manufacturer EPack, showcasing a 90 centimeter Ka-band antenna bundled with airtime, advertising very high speeds up to 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. On closer inspection, I discovered that the system was based on a land modem, which is normally unreliable for use at sea, instead of using a modem that is specifically designed for mobile communications at sea.

So, at the end of my tour, I sat drinking Amstel beer, checking the terms and conditions of the show, to see whether I could get the price of the flight reimbursed on grounds of lack of novelty. No chance. I was bound to visit an exhibition of vintage equipment waiting for next year’s product launches, when hopefully the industry will shake itself up and provide what seafarers actually want: voice and Internet systems that resemble land mobile networks in both performance and price.

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SkyTech designs all of its antennas using state-of-the-art technology: computer simulation software used in aerospace missions. The company puts all its passion into constantly improving its products. For more information please contact Edoardo Zarghetta via 'Contact Author'.

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