On a recent morning, while sailing back to South Florida from St. Bartholomew in the luxury yacht Battered Bull, Capt. Jeff Ridgway and crew heard over the radio that two large cargo ships had collided nearby.
Few vessels were passing through this part of the Caribbean, about 60 miles north of the Dominican Republic, and Ridgway’s 171-foot yacht was the first to arrive at the scene.
Throughout the episode, Ridgway and his crew relied on the yacht’s satellite phone to communicate with the U.S. Coast Guard hundreds of miles away. The crew also used the device to reach the home office of a British company that managed one of the damaged vessels.
“We originally contacted the USCG on 2182 kHz and then called them on our VSAT voice line. We did not hear responses from any other local traffic on the VHF radio throughout the duration of the incident,” he said in an e-mail.
“My first thought was to contact the USCG (using) the SSB thinking that the call would be received by a Coast Guard vessel in the Caribbean area or one of the USCG shore stations. If that had failed we would have then went to the satellite phones,” he continued. “We ended up performing most of the communications with the USCG and the M/V Seagate’s home office via the VSAT voice line.”
Although maritime satellite technology was initially created for this type of emergency, its applications have grown a great deal since the 1970s and 80s. Depending on the system, a shipping company’s office staff can track their ship’s speed, troubleshoot and repair engine problems and send revised cargo manifests to the captain in a matter of seconds from thousands of miles away.
As large containerships faced crew shortages in the last decade, many installed satellite systems that could handle vast amounts of data. While off duty, crew could play games online, update their Facebook pages and, depending on the policies of their employer, stream video or movies.
The days of unlimited crew Web streaming are largely over amid the hyper-competitive shipping market, according to industry expert Alan Gottlieb, of Gottlieb International Group, in Arlington, Va., a company that advises businesses on satellite communications. But for many smaller boats that work in the United States or near the coast, the days of widespread use of satellite communications have yet to arrive.
Most workboats will now have some kind of satellite system on board, but most of the time the devices gather dust as crews communicate over radio or smartphones for most purposes. Others use basic satellite systems that send text messages back and forth between the office rather than installing Web-ready systems.
Jim Rhodes, a Norfolk, Va.-based communications consultant who advises companies on maritime satellite systems, says the main reason modern satellite has been slow to arrive on many vessels is cost.
“They don’t like to use them because the per-minute rates are so high,” he said. “These are not what you use to talk to your wife back home and ask, ‘Hey, how are the children doing?’”
“The short answer is that where universal terrestrial cellular coverage is available, there is no competition,” he added.
Modern satellite systems offer a seemingly unlimited number of options that target different ends of the market.
According to Gottlieb, fishing boats or other small vessels that require very little data could get by with an Inmarsat or Iridium satellite phone that costs about $1,000 to buy and about $1 a minute for voice calls.
For so-called “lightweight users” on mid-sized cargo or tanker ships, VSAT systems that offer two or three phone lines and broadband Internet that allows for Web browsing can be had for anywhere from $1,500 per month and up, while the antennas alone can cost $30,000 or more. Many companies, Gottlieb says, lease the antennas to save money.
Heavy users such as tankers and containerships that require advanced broadband Internet capability to send and receive large amounts of data and have additional bandwidth often spend up to $3,000 a month and buy or lease up to eight-foot-wide antennas that cost between $50,000 to $100,000.
“There are many alternatives depending on what the function of a vessel is, how large the vessel is, and exactly what you want to do on the vessel on the Internet,” Gottlieb said.
Despite concerns about the cost of satellite, which industry officials insist is more perception than reality, steady growth is expected in the maritime satellite industry over the next decade.
“Onboard bandwidth requirements keep growing, driving the maritime market in a direction quite beneficial to satellite communications,” said Wei Li, senior consultant for the firm Euroconsult. “Fully integrated IP applications providing Internet access, audio and video streaming, and the integration of ships into corporate networks generate significant capacity demand at sea.”
Gottlieb said the trends toward more data capability that took off in part as a tool to boost crew welfare will continue as companies learn they can use satellite systems to cut costs.
“Part of it is the need to increase efficiency,” said Gottlieb. “On the ship of the future, you will see all sorts of telemetry coming over satellite back to headquarters for analysis. You will be able to remotely diagnose and fix problems on the vessel.”
Those factors may drive the very large ship market, but what about smaller vessels that currently have limited use for satellite systems?
Frank Coles, president of Inmarsat Maritime, foresees a host of factors that will ultimately drive these companies toward satellite. For one thing, cell coverage isn’t always available, a situation that he says could become more common as networks become more congested.
“What we believe is there is going to be a huge uptick in data in the next five years,” Coles said. “If you look at what has happened ashore in the consumer industry, you can see it happening already (in the maritime industry).”
He also believes the same desire for new onboard amenities and operational efficiencies that spurred growth on larger vessels will one day arrive at smaller boats.
“Our research tells us, in the general merchant market, if you enable communication and run proper business tools across a satellite connection, you can run your vessel more efficiently, operate more effectively and have a happier crew because you are able to provide them with more services and benefits,” Coles said.
Jim Dodez, vice president of marketing and strategic planning for Rhode Island-based KVH Industries, agrees it’s a matter of when, not if, satellite becomes more prevalent on smaller vessels — especially for firms with a fleet of vessels operating in different places.
“Just as people in businesses on shore learned they can significantly improve their company’s profitably and performance with a network, we are starting to see that now with a lot of maritime markets,” he said, “even on tugs and barges.”
Dann Marine Towing, of Chesapeake City, Md., is one company that’s considering adopting a more advanced maritime satellite system for its fleet of 18 inland and oceangoing tugboats along the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.
Jason Wisneski, the company’s safety manager, said vessels are outfitted with satellite phones and a Boatracs system that sends and receives messages between the home office and other boats. The satellite phone is used only as a last resort, after the Boatracs system, onboard cell phones and radio, he said.
Wisneski said the company is considering a different Boatracs system that would greatly expand what the crew can do while on the water.
“Let’s say you have a new employee and you needed him to fill out a change of address form,” he said. “He could log on to site, the form would pop up and you could fill it out and print it here in real time.”
The system could also give the company more flexibility to change orders and communicate with upcoming ports and receive updates mid-route, he said.