Connectivity has always been a key priority for the maritime mobility sector but today, the need for satcom companies to be agile and reliable is essential. So what is the current state of affairs and what’s in store for the future of the satellite communications industry?
Caption: People have become much more used to having connectivity at their fingertips and expect it even when travelling in remote areas.
Connectivity has always been a key priority for the maritime mobility sector but today, as geopolitical events place new demands on the industry, the need for satellite communications companies to be both agile and reliable is more imperative than ever. Satellite companies need to demonstrate their innovation and resourcefulness to ensure their client’s evolving requirements can be met promptly and effectively.
We spoke to Telenor Satellite’s Jan Hetland, Director Data Services Division, about the current state of the maritime mobility sector and what he sees for the future of the satellite communications industry.
Could you summarise the challenges and milestones that Telenor Satellite has faced in the last year?
COVID has obviously been challenging for everyone but planning for a post-COVID world has been difficult because we haven’t known what to expect. We have had to anticipate what demand would be like from each sector and then design our networks to fulfil that anticipated demand. For example, the ferry business is coming back stronger and more quickly than we had anticipated, not because of an increase in passenger numbers relative to pre-COVID times, but each of those passengers seems to have a higher requirement for connectivity. It seems people have become much more used to having connectivity at their fingertips and also making use of it and take that with them when they travel. So, the average revenue per passenger has been higher post pandemic than it was before.
We are also seeing a surge in demand for oil and gas connectivity, not just from our maritime clients but also for our land-based services. This is not necessarily from new clients, but we are finding that our existing clients have been cancelling downgrades, requesting upgrades, developing new projects, and increasing exploration. The upshot is that we have needed to rebalance our business, and this has been helped by the new and more efficient technology we have introduced which has increased our capacity and made possible higher bandwidths in the Nordics.
You’ve enjoyed a healthy collaboration with Xiplink™ on your Anker Managed Service and through their WAN optimisation service. Could you recap how that partnership has progressed?
Earlier this year we started to offer XipLink, an end-to-end WAN optimiser solution, as part of our Anker Managed Services portfolio. This provides increased throughput, maximum wireless performance, and an improved end-user experience. XipLink has proved very beneficial to our passenger ship clients as it offloads the computational burden of a large number of end-users and TCP sessions from the satellite modems, which often prove to be the bottleneck.
We are finding our clients across the board in this sector are opting for XipLink and, in fact, having tried it on a first vessel they have chosen to roll it out throughout their entire fleet. The amount of uptake we have seen on the XipLink service is very encouraging and we expect it to continue to grow.
With developing geopolitical events placing new demands on the industry week by week, how have you seen connectivity demand shift?
I think the biggest change we have seen has been with the oil and gas sector as explained earlier. Prior to COVID there had been a reduction in exploration and, of course, that reduction was expected to continue following on from COP 26. With the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, everything has been turned on its head and we are seeing greater demand for connectivity in support of a rise in activity.
Certainly, in a country like Norway which has enjoyed revenues from the oil and gas sector for many years, the discussion that had centred around tailing off, or even ending, oil exploration activities has now been put aside as the EU attempts to reduce its reliance on Russian energy. However, I think the shift goes beyond simply oil and gas and encompasses the entire energy sector as we have also seen a lot of activity related to offshore wind projects including floating wind farms which will also increase demand for connectivity. It’s all about ensuring energy security and developing alternative and renewable energy sources.
How can satellite companies work with their clients to anticipate changing requirements and deliver reliable service?
There is really only one possible answer to this question – satellite companies need to listen to the demands of their customers and then make sure that they have right products and services to deliver the connectivity they need. For satellite operators such as ourselves, the key challenge is that you need a three to four-year lead time when designing and building a satellite, so both we and our clients need to have a very good idea of our future needs well in advance. And you try to build a bit of flexibility into your satellite design to cater for changing demands.
Still, not all of our customers take a long-term view so we also need to look at market reports and overall trends although you wouldn’t launch a broadcast satellite without having firm requirements from the broadcaster and you would design it around their needs.
It is fair to say that today’s satellites offer much more flexibility in terms of redistributing capacity so that, combined with talking to clients about their projected requirements, means that we have more certainty that we will meet demand moving into the future. Data connectivity is certainly going to go up and part of our role is to make customers aware of what is possible so that they can make the most of their opportunities.
How do you see mobile satcom technology changing going forward?
In the future you will see bit rates continue to increase and connectivity requirements will only rise. People expect more, for roughly the same amount of spend, so we have to try and deliver on those expectations and provide more for the same amount of money. While demand grows for increased services and performance, the baseband platforms and modems which form the infrastructure of the business are having to keep pace. This is the main reason for our recent adoption of the Newtec Dialog® platform which ensures we can provide services up to 100/25 Mbps in order to support high-end user cases.
Maritime antenna technology is another important area. Today’s modern satellites are more powerful than older satellites, and in turn this allows smaller, lighter and lower cost antennas to be used. This is a particularly important area for the maritime sector since the typical maritime stabilised antenna platforms account for a large portion of the total cost of a maritime satcom terminal. For some time, flat-panel antennas have been seen as the holy grail for maritime satcom, as they have no moving parts and motors which are subject to wear and tear in a challenging maritime environment. Although progress has been made in this area, the equipment manufacturers have yet to solve all the issues required for flat-panel antennas to become mainstream technology. Today, they are either too low in performance, or they cost too much, or they consume too much power.
The new LEO and MEO systems may help bring about this change since they heavily rely on such antennas being available in order to offer low-cost terminal equipment. But the past 8-10 years show that improvement comes in gradual small steps and not in giant leaps. In the current geopolitical landscape, we are seeing supply chain issues, embargos and looming trade wars which all contribute to rising prices and schedule delays. Hence, several of the planned LEO/MEO systems have already announced delays or having to scale back on their initial ambitions. Starlink’s recent launch of a service for the yachting market is perhaps a sign of progress being made, however, and it will be interesting to see going forward if they are able to satisfy the requirements of this maritime segment.
What is the most important thing that the maritime mobility sector needs to understand about connectivity?
I think the entire maritime sector will need to focus more closely on cybersecurity. There have already been some high-profile breaches involving large shipping companies which have caused problems within the supply chain and more recently a two-way service in Ukraine was hacked and effectively shut down. This just shows that the industry must take a holistic view on cybersecurity. Having secure satellite networks will not help much if a ship’s own IT infrastructure is left vulnerable and exposed from the Internet. There are still far too many examples of clients and ship owners operating network equipment using default factory login credentials. So everyone’s mindset has to change really.
Being part of a large multi-national telco – Telenor Group – cybersecurity is something we have to take seriously, and within the Telenor group of companies we have access to some of the best expertise in the country to help us design our networks and improve our security posture.
What can we expect from Telenor Satellite in the years ahead?
For sure we will continue to evolve as a satellite operator, we need to continue to put new additional capacity into the sky when there is a need, and the time is right. We will continue to invest, evolve, and develop new technology to meet our customer’s demands.
So, in a nutshell, we are planning to be productive, planning to be around for a good many years and planning to invest in and adopt new technology whenever the possibility arises. No revolution on our part but steady evolution going forward.