Can Satcoms at sea improve operations on land?

We write a lot about the needs of industry and how LTE, Wi-Fi, DAS and 5G, incorporated into a private network, could improve logistics and security and underpin just-in-time operations for airports, sea-ports, factories, stadiums, malls or local government.

But what if an important part of your supply chain isn’t onshore? What if, for example, you’re a major port and you’re trying to extend efficiencies to the ships that visit? What if you’re trying to get them to communicate movements, arrival times and cargo types to ensure smoother operations throughout your business?

Cellular and Wi-Fi aren’t much use in the Atlantic or North Sea, other than for specialist industrial applications. But there is an answer. Offshore oil rigs, remote backhaul, mining operations, on-plane communications, broadcasters, TV viewers and, yes, ships all use satellite communications and have done so for decades.

And, unlike a decade or two ago, there is much more bandwidth on offer across C-band, Ku-band and Ka-band. Ka-band in particular is plentiful, and although its millimetre waveband frequencies are more susceptible to rain fading, mitigation techniques such as adaptive coding and modulation are now available to overcome this.

Nor is satellite capability an issue. The previously relentless growth in demand for bandwidth for TV services is finally beginning to flatten and the numbers of high-throughput satellites being launched of late has brought significant increases in capacity and reliability.

Unfortunately, if you’re on a ship bringing containers to a major port, you have one very obvious problem: movement, despite the concept, geostationary satellites appear to move if you’re on a vessel. For many years, this could partly be solved by using the L-band service offered by satcoms pioneer Inmarsat; it wasn’t cheap, and its limited bandwidth limited the volumes of data or voice calls. Nevertheless, its relatively long wavelength and the wide beamwidth (several tens of degrees) from the small antennas meant you didn’t have to be pinpoint accurate, nor worry about movement when connecting with the satellite.

At the higher frequencies of C, Ku and Ka-band, you can already solve some of these problems with a high spec terminal, whose price tag may be several tens of thousands of dollars. This is – or was, until the pandemic – a justifiable expense for, say, a cruise liner with thousands of passengers. It may not suit a vessel on a tight budget. But it’s the advent of Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that brings a solution to the problem of pointing. LEO and MEO systems, by definition, are not geostationary, and even for a land-based user terminal, a steerable antenna is essential.

The need to support the MEO and LEO systems – after tracking a moving satellite across the sky to see it eventually drop below your local horizon, your antenna dish, terminal or receiver needs to quickly find and repoint to  the next one –  has meant that there is now a huge amount of effort going into developing lower-cost terminals. There are two parallel approaches – mechanically steered (conventional parabolic) antennas and electrically steered (for example, flat panel phased array) antennas. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but both are constantly being improved. If these antennas are being developed for MEO and LEO, they will work just as well with geostationary (GEO) satellites

So, depending on your communications needs, geostationary satellites could still be a viable alternative. There are lots of them and with a seemingly flattening of the growth in satellite TV, transponder capacity prices will be very attractive and other than at extreme latitudes – close to the poles – geostationary satellites do provide truly global coverage.

The technology you use to manage the communications from end to end – the coding, the multiplexing, everything that’s on the ground and in the user terminal that’s not the antenna itself – is not going to be based on open standards. This isn’t GSM.

Will all of this change? Will low-cost intelligent satellite tracking that can compensate for ship movement soon be the norm? Well, let’s put it this way: if you’re planning to integrate ships into a port system and want on-board satellite connectivity for under $2000, that day is getting closer. And, as an aside, the major suppliers of turnkey systems will be keen to help you set up; this is a very competitive market.

As for open systems, satcoms is a market that’s had a very hard year, as industrial activity – notably in oil and gas supply and transport – has slowed down and customers are demanding more flexibility. That could be a catalyst for change – and if it is, industries on land as well as on sea could eventually benefit.