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The Future of Onboard Connectivity

With the world seemingly opening up again after the pandemic, who among us is not interested in faster, more reliable and significantly cheaper connectivity? There are some universal limitations, such as the speed of light, but most owners could save a fortune and enjoy a better experience with minimal capital outlay.

From the most important factors to consider when choosing a VSAT provider on board a superyacht to the exciting developments that are currently happening in the world of onboard AVIT right now, YOT Store’s Ryan Porter discusses the ins and outs of superyacht connectivity.

Internet access is not only critical for operational reasons but also for the crew to keep in touch with their friends and families. How is the use of VSAT penetrating the smaller boat market?

The vast majority, if not all yachts, have a VSAT antenna and would be connected to a VSAT service. I would say that is the least preferred WAN currently compared to 4G-Marina Wi-Fi and a shore connection. The high latency of 600ms kills the experience, plus the outrageous cost for such a small amount of bandwidth is frustrating in 2020. Still, a geostationary VSAT link is the only option for vessels that want to be connected to the internet while travelling outside of the cellular footprint - there isn't currently an alternative option.

What exciting developments are happening in the world of onboard AVIT just now?

There’s Wi-Fi 6 which will introduce a significant difference to your onboard wireless networks with speeds up to four times faster than previous generations of Wi-Fi equipment. It will bring reduced latency, higher reliability and a seamless handover between access points. With higher performance for mobile devices, Wi-Fi 6 will improve the user experience across the entire wireless landscape. Wi-Fi 6 also offers enhanced security, with WPA3 and improved interference mitigation providing a better quality of experience. Part of the technology behind Wi-Fi 6 and 5G is OFDMA.

And what is OFDMA? The core technologies behind Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are both based on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) technology, which originated from LTE. Quite simply, OFDMA is a type of frequency-division multiplexing that is able to use subcarriers more efficiently when it comes to transporting data. Previously, when using Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM), each user got a one-time slot or a whole bandwidth channel. Users needed to wait in line before they were able to deliver their packets. As more clients joined, it took longer for packets to be delivered, resulting in lag time and people waiting to transport data.

OFDMA provides a more regular and consistent packet delivery, and users don't have to wait as long. Here's another way to put it. With OFDM, any time a user would request a data packet, it would essentially send out one truck to meet each request of that single user, which isn't very efficient. OFDMA is different in that it can act as a single truck that can deliver data packets to individual users, all in one round. This is far more efficient and takes less time. Figure 2 illustrates the difference between OFDM and OFDMA.

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Comparison of OFDM and OFDMA

Cisco Wi-Fi 6 products use OFDMA. As a result, your network will be significantly faster, and your users will have a better and smoother Wi-Fi experience. The leading Wi-Fi 6 Cisco products are from the Cisco 9100 Catalyst range, which has pioneered the wireless technology and would suit any yacht looking to upgrade their wired and wireless network for an upcoming refit. What's not to like about a faster, reliable seamless connectivity throughout your vessel? Wi-Fi 6 will pave the way for future wireless technology.

What are the best options for vessels that do not want to install VSAT?

For any vessel looking to improve their internet connectivity, I believe I have the recipe for success with a robust 4G-LTE-LTEA-5G/Wi-Fi solution. This solution is a result of my own personal experiences taking on numerous vessels, seeing many disasters and having to repair them all.

Consulting with experts in this field, I've put together a set of techniques to give your yacht the best chance of maximising the throughput of modems. There are various options for how you may wish to configure your WANs, but if you follow this principle, you won't go far wrong.

Let's start by breaking it down into different components:

Cellular Router

The Peplink range provides the leading cellular data hardware solution in the yachting industry. They have numerous options suitable for various-sized vessels.

  1. < 50m, I would recommend a Pepwave MAX transit duo.

  2. 50m - 80m, I would recommend 2 x Pepwave HD4 MBX. Right out of the box, the HD4 MBX supports Gigabit LTE speeds and is upgradeable to 5G. The 5G upgrade comes by swapping out the modem unit, so you don't have to purchase a new router on the modem. The MBX powerhouse boasts the capability to deliver 2.5GBps speeds, futureproofing your yacht for the future of 5G speeds.

  3. > 80m and above I would recommend a Peplink EPX which is an absolute beast in size (2 U unit) and performance with next-level connectivity. The modular EPX can support different technologies depending on which modules you purchase. Also, when 5G technology appears, there will be modules for it too, ensuring that your investment is future proofed. Purchase just the modules for the connectivity you need. When you need more in the future, you can expand anytime. You can also take advantage of the mediafast content caching module.

Antennas

The No.1 antennas in the maritime market are the Poynting 402 or the Promarine ProTAC 5311. They both have their advantages. The ProTAC 5311 is very small and stubby, and the Poynting 402 is a traditional whip type antenna.  The bonus with the Poynting 402 is that there are 2 x MIMO antennas inside one radome, meaning we can take full advantage of the capability of each modem using the main, and diversity with only one antenna per modem with fewer antennas on display. The ProTAC 5311 has one antenna per radome, so this would mean one antenna per main and diversity connection, but they are considerably smaller in height an if place correctly wouldn't be seen from the below decks.

The Pepwave MBX, Category 18 modem requires 16 antenna connections! Obviously for any superyacht to have 16 antennas on the mast or brow isn't genuinely pleasing to the eye.

So the above choice is completely down to personal preference: 8 x Poynting Antennas @ 650mm x 70mm traditional whip antenna type or 16 x Promarine ProTAC @ 120mm x 90mm stubby antenna type.

Both of these antennas will pick up any Wi-Fi marina 2400-2500 MHZ frequency range, acting like a 2-in-1 solution for connectivity and eliminating any Wi-Fi WAN routing equipment you may have on board. 

Installation

Unfortunately there are too many poor designs and weak 4G system installs on board yachts. This leads to a bad reputation for the 4G router brands when, in fact, the router never gave them a chance in the first place.

Some strict guidelines must be followed when installing 4G systems. Long cable runs will cause dB loss, and unfortunately there's no way around it. However you can minimise loss incurred by using a minimum length cable (maximum 15m) where possible. This usually means installing your cellular router close to your antennas wherever they maybe. You can prevent higher loss by using a good quality cable; we recommend an ecoflex, LMR 400 or even better, use a LMR 600 with no joins as each coaxial connect adds significant dB loss to your system.

Select a good antenna and router (as previously discussed), and this is the recipe to success! A 4G install that gives your cellular WAN the best possible chance of passing maximum bandwidth to your ships network. 

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A simple but effective 4G install that just works

Service provider

If you manage to achieve all of the above then it's time to consider an adequate cellular provider - I wouldn't always go with the cheapest option here. For me, it's all about the quality of the team supporting the service and the actual cellular coverage you receive. When choosing a comms supplier, having direct contact to assigned to you beats communicating with a large team where you are passed onto a different person every time you call up (this can leave you explaining yourself time and time again which can become very frustrating if you are having issues!).

Vodafone has a relationship with more than 700 roaming partners around the world so I would suggest finding a good quality team who puts you first opposed to joining a big operation where you are just a number. The worldwide leading cellular provider is Vodafone's 4G/LTE maritime footprint which covers 93% of the world's coastlines. Its global roaming SIM card works in all countries, with no need to swap local SIM cards as vessels cross borders. However, these tariffs are more expensive than if you were to purchase specific region cards, i.e. Europe, the US and Caribbean.

Bonding

Speedfusion changes your internet experiences on board by removing buffering and makes jitter a thing of the past. Not only that, but Speedfusion also routes your traffic via a destination of your choice, enabling you to watch those crucial Netflix/TV episodes from your favourite country where all other VPNs. Whether you're transferring a few documents or driving Realtime/video feed/VoIP conversations, SpeedFusion pumps all your data down a single large data pipe that's budget-friendly, ultra-fast, and easily configurable to suit any networking environment. 

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Imagine you're driving to work in a rush and you get stuck behind a load of traffic which is impossible to overtake (i.e. a user is hogging the network by downloading a large file). You're left frustrated and now you have to sit tight until all the traffic in front of you is ready to move on! With bonding you have four lanes joined together, making a highway where you are free to overtake/undertake and travel as you please without any obstacles. This also means if one of the lanes broke down, you could still use any of the other three roads without stopping.

One thing to note from experience is that there is an overhead on your connection speeds. Let us assume you had 4 x 20Mbps SIM connections; previously, this would equate to 80Mbps in four separate lanes. With bonding, you would now be looking at 4x 20Mbps/20%=60Mbps. In terms of speed, I don't believe you need be too concerned with more speed if you had a fully occupied vessel all browsing and streaming a stable internet connection without any issues.

5G

5G will only be a reality for some yachts that are docked in a marina with a new 5G distribution system in a developed country. Only then you will stand a chance of working towards 5G speeds. Then we turn to Wi-Fi 6 to make sure your network can handle the throughput of 5G.

The science behind radio waves is high-frequency wave = short-range distance, i.e. the closer you are to the cell tower, the better the 5G signal. The 3.5Ghz is widely used in Europe across multiple providers, but T-Mobile had shed some light on 5G for the maritime world as they have introduced a 600Mhz 5G service in the US which is excellent for us 'yachties'. Going back to our equation above, the lower frequencies equal more range.

With the above mentioned, unfortunately, the 5G technology was not designed with vessels in mind. It's all about optimising your ship's cellular network solution to take on any network and to squeeze every last dB out of the radio waves.

See below for the stated 4G/5G:

  • 4G LTE <150 Mbps  Long term evolution- working towards 4G Speeds

  • 4G LTEA <300Mbps Long term evolution Advanced- getting closer to 4G Speed

  • 5G <10GBps

These speeds are highly unlikely and have variable factors which apply to them:

  1. The infrastructure of the network your connected to which sometimes can be relying on a coconut and string Caribbean cellular network distribution system.

  2. How close are you to the cell tower?

  3. How many other connections the cell tower has?

  4. What frequency are you connected to?

What do you think will be the next big development within the delivery of data to yachts, and when are we likely to see it?

The biggest by far is the shift towards LEO satellites - this will address the long latency VSAT internet connections of the standard GEO stationary satellites. A typical GEO stationary link will give you around 600ms of latency. With LEO satellites this will be reduced to around 50ms which will drastically improve your browsing experience, finally ridding the days of the traditional high latency VSAT connection.

All of us sailors know how expensive and poor the service is! Obviously, with 5G looming, yachts will suck up the data a lot faster which will mean more significant monthly bills. Speed is what we are all striving for, but this comes at a cost.

When will we finally see the back of Sat Domes?

SpaceX: SpaceX hopes to have 800 satellites in orbit by around mid-2020, which is enough for their partial global coverage to go commercial by the end of this year or early 2021. Watch a video on the Space X technology here.

OneWeb: OneWeb has said that they aim to begin their first customer demos at the end of 2020 and will then proceed to fully global commercial services in 2021. However there has been a backwards step in developments too as OneWeb files for bankruptcy. Three launches into a series of nearly 20 missions to deploy 650 satellites to provide global internet service, it  announced that it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and reduced its workforce after unsuccessful negotiations for more cash from its largest investor. With this unfortunate news, we would estimate that the technology would not be available for another four to five years. Watch a video of One Webs technology here.

Antenna: As technology progresses, we are starting to see a shift in flat panels - some new builds are being designed with flat panels incorporated, but these boats are still three to four years out before we'll start seeing them out in the wild. In the meantime we see Sat Domes already supporting LEOs which will definitely push time forward when it comes to seeing a complete sat dome free yacht.

You also have to factor in that some yachts are on limited budgets and they will stick with their current tech until it fails. It's a great concept, and I'm sure they will be the go-to antenna eventually. The only traditional three axis antennas on the market that have undergone successful testing with LEO technologies are the Intellian NX range. Also, the Sailor 900 is compatible; however, a lot of components will have to be swapped, and it will almost cost as much as a new antenna to make it compatible.

Can you tell us a bit about the options for managing bandwidth on board as this can be a big issue, especially when guests are on board with youngsters?

Guests will often take all of the bandwidth, particularly on smaller vessels, leaving the crew struggling to connect. Generally speaking, a firewall would be used to mitigate threats and manipulate your ship's external WANs. This would come from a virtual or hardware appliance; for most yachts out there, the Kerio Control NG range would be doing this. Personally, I would install the hardware device with a high availability unit and a redundancy unit.

The main control functions of the Kerio firewall include the following:

  • Manage bandwidth via prioritisation and traffic monitoring, Internet link load balancing and limiting access to streaming video and peer-to-peer networks.

  • Web content and application filtering across 141 categories, plus the ability to view individual users' internet activity through detailed reports.

Cyberscurity:  How much is the threat increasing, and are we doing enough to counter it?

The security of the yacht should be at the forefront of every system on board, even more so with the complex AV/IT systems. It is essential that the crew put as many barriers in place to protect their ships, crew and guests' sensitive data. The responsibility of cybersecurity lies with the ETO; they will need to implement a structure to protect the vessels critical systems, even more so now as we are in the digitalised era where almost all smart systems on board rely on an internet connection. These multiple connections to the outside world open up so many back doors for hackers/viruses to penetrate your vessel.

A firewall is essential to protect your vessel's IT network from viruses, malware and malicious activity. A crucial component in the IT topology is the firewall; this provides comprehensive protection of your ship's network and data and includes a next generation firewall and router, intrusion and prevention (IPS), gateway antivirus, VPN, and web content and application filtering. The most popular brands of firewall, in order, are Kerio Control, Fortinet, Sophos and Cisco ASA would be protecting the network integrity through deep packet inspection, advanced routing and intrusion prevention.

Firewalls may come as a virtual or hardware appliance. From experience, I would install the hardware device with an additional high availability/fail-over unit as this protection eliminates the risk and cost of connectivity or threat-protection downtime. Without high-availability, if the primary device failed (due to a power surge or other cause), network administrators (ETO) would need to put a simple router in place to re-establish connectivity. A cyber attack may come from an outside source but could also come from an internal source from within your network. A rogue crew member could simply insert a USB drive into any part of your network, for example.

As you can imagine, superyachts are prime targets to penetrate and are attractive to any potential hacker. This is why it's so important to keep on top of the ship's security systems to help resist any attack. Realistically, in the real world, ETO's have an immense workload as it is, surviving charter after charter to keep the vessel running. This is why the security should be outsourced to a cybersecurity expert team; they would survey the IT architecture and provide you with a solution to defend the vessel. I do believe that currently, most ships haven't taken this seriously enough and could be hacked by any professional. This is something the industry needs to take seriously. If anybody is interested, please message me for some recommended solutions.

To contact Ryan Porter:
M: +44 (0)78899 03682
E: [email protected]


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Comments

  • Comment by: Rod Hatch - 5 Aug 2020 11:34 (7 days ago)

    Very technical article about systems which are essential for operations and for owner/guest enjoyment. Crew possessing the tech knowledge required to maintain these systems, many of whom are self taught, deserve access to some type of recognized professional certification, leading to appropriate salary compensation.

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