The evolution of satellite communication

When humankind looks back at space travel, Apollo’s landing on the Moon in 1969 may be the only event remembered. And yet, of the many important aspects of the space age, satellite communications has probably had more effect on our daily lives than any of the rest.  

Satellite communications is still the only truly commercial space technology- -continuing to generate billions of dollars annually in sales of products and services.

The Billion Dollar Technology

Imagine, just for a moment, that there is no such thing as maritime mobile satellite communication. It shouldn’t be difficult for many readers, since mobile satcom has only been around to any appreciable extent for the past 25 years. Many ex-Radio Officers will remember the first  “mushrooms” appearing on ships and their concern as to how this nascent technology might affect their future.

JRC JUE 45a Inmarsat A

JRC JUE 45a Inmarsat A

Few realised in the early 1980s just how significant satcom would become – or how quickly it would change  their lives. Almost faster than you could say “Morse code”, Radio Officers were gone and replaced by technology whose instant communication capabilities enabled remote, direct management of ships and crew.  Morse code, radio telex and specialist operator skills were not required in this new age.

Around the world ship owners and managers soon realised the efficiency gains to be achieved and adopted satcom willingly.   Within ten years, every major shipping company had fitted satcom, dispensed with Radio Officers and was making major efficiency gains that justified their technology investments.

But on the 125th anniversary of this magazine, let’s go back in time and recall how and why this technological revolution in maritime communications first came about.

The safety of ships and seafarers has always been of paramount importance to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and with satcom, a distress call from a ship at sea would always be heard and acted upon.

The IMO conceived the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and established an Inter-Governmental Organisation (IGO) to provide the necessary satellite communications for its successful operation. This operating IGO, originally named the International Maritime Satellite Organisation, became known by the abbreviated form “Inmarsat” – the name the evolved company still retains.

From the beginning, Inmarsat satcom equipment was capable of much more than providing vital distress and safety services alone. Voice, fax, telex and data communications offered seemingly limitless commercial opportunities for all.

It became possible for the ship to be an extension of the shipping company office and therefore within direct budgetary control of the superintendents who managed the day-to-day running of the ships. Satcom became the finest tool in the management toolbox.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the range of maritime communications solutions had expanded.  Operators of LEO (Low Earth Orbit) constellations – such as Iridium and Globalstar – offered voice and low-speed data connectivity globally, including the polar regions not covered by GEO (geostationary) satellites. 

Operators of VSAT systems were able to deliver voice and high-speed data, mostly on a regional basis.  Maritime users now had a choice of which communication solution best fitted their business – based on their needs, the type of technology they felt comfortable with, the ‘real estate’ on the vessel, and the routes on which they sailed.

Fleet F77 F55 and F33

Fleet F77 F55 and F33

By this point, the shipping industry had already embraced and was using the newer digital services of Inmarsat B and Inmarsat C as core products for maritime safety and business. Inmarsat M and mini-M were also part of the commercial maritime digital portfolio. By 2002, the portfolio had expanded to include the new generation of Inmarsat Fleet products.

FleetBroadband, launched at the end of 2007, was another leap forward for maritime communications, with data speeds of up to 432 kbps and access to simultaneous voice and data.  It’s part of an exciting future, in which ships may truly become floating offices and have the same bandwidth we have come to expect from shore-based office environments today.

Applications and products designed for the shore will slot comfortably into ship-based environments, conversations with the Captain would be over the Iinternet and ordering spare parts would be a click away.

Today’s satellite operators are planning to be in the business for the long-term. Providers are investing heavily in developing new platforms capable of carrying large communication payloads. 

Inmarsat’s newest constellation – the Inmarsat-4 satellites – is fully-funded and has a life expectancy into the 2020s; and Inmarsat’s selection as the first customer for the European Space Agency’s Alphasat platform will deliver an even more advanced satellite for launch around 2013. 

As other operators turn to the markets to fund new satellite networks, there is a real buzz among the investment community for the potential of the satcoms industry.

Following the attack on the USS Cole back in 2000, and then on the tanker Limburg in 2002, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) moved swiftly with the mandated requirement for ship’s security alert systems (SSAS) introduced in 2004.

From December 31st 2008, long range identification and tracking (LRIT) is a requirement for ships and there is a growing momentum among the industry to ensure the service will start well and on time.

In tomorrow’s information age truly global, always-available communications are expected to be cheaper and faster by a significant amount, compared to 25 years ago.  In the next 12 months, we can expect to see industry users boxing ever more clever with high-level usage and bandwidth, squeezing the maximum throughput from the company’s IT systems.

Internet optimisation is likely to be the buzz phrase for 2009; as users try to eliminate some of the unnecessary data flowing over the network and provide an enhanced user experience to those onboard.  The challenge will be to get more effective throughput within the bandwidth.

With optimisation will come acceleration techniques. Cut out the repetitive elements and it’s possible to accelerate the effective speed by up to ten times for some applications.

Already in use by early adopters, in the next two years the value of real-time telemetry for remote equipment or cargo monitoring will become widespread standard practice for optimum performance.

The evolution of satcom will continue to play a pivotal role in improving life onboard.  From delivering entertainment – like movies, sports and news – through to improved crew calling. 

Onboard GSM systems are already available through companies like Blue Ocean Wireless and this is fast becoming the hottest ‘must have’ for shipping companies that are facing the most critical crew shortages in three decades.

With onboard GSM, crews can send and receive calls and text messages at times when it suits them and in the privacy of their cabins.   In the next 5-10 years, it could well be the norm to offer family video conference access for crews.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned the huge impact satcom had on the career of Radio Officers. Many believe we’re soon to come full circle with the re-emergence of ‘a super radio officer’ working on onboard as an IT/communications specialist.

As technology becomes more complex and the volume of demands from the shore increases, many acknowledge that there is a need to reinstate someone who will be able to cope with the high degree of integration between the highly complex systems onboard.  So in some ways we are back to where we started – but the progress is real, the technology is continually evolving and the future is very exciting.