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FEATURE: Inmarsat’s Ku-Band Challenge @ Sea

11 января 2009

Inmarsat, traditionally the dominant player in shipboard communications, is rapidly loosing ground to VSAT alternatives as the demand for fixed-price broadband goes to sea.

The rapidly evolving desire for high transmission rates at 512 Kbps and above in the large merchant shipping fleets, along with requirements for gigabytes of data transmission per/month, means Inmarsat’s data hungry, high-end users will move to take advantage of soon to be complete Global Ku-band coverage.

Traditionally, 80 percent of most company’s revenues come from 20 percent of their customers. If that rule holds true for Inmarsat, then 20 percent of Inmarsat’s customers — and 80 percent of its revenue — could move to Ku-band. Just at Motorola’s Iridium service was rendered largely obsolete by global GSM coverage, Inmarsat’s i4 satellites now face a similar fate.

When FleetBroadband was conceived, Ku coverage was largely confined to the continents. Only C-band and global beams and Inmarsat were available over deep ocean routes. With the launch of the now abandoned Boeing Connexion service, Ku availability over Pacific and
Atlantic Ocean became a reality. Since then, major VSAT operators have been quick to recognize maritime VSAT market potential. They have added, or are adding, additional Ku coverage to complete a worldwide network of overlapping Ku Beam footprints.

The Ku/L Band Hybrid

The Hybrid involves the deployment of Ku service and the use of Inmarsat-i4 or Iridium OpenPort as a backup system. Integrating the two services is facilitated through an IP switching device manufactured by several firms. Perhaps the best known and frequently deployed is the Commbox, manufactured by Virtek in Norway. Designed specifically for maritime use, the Commbox essentially offers least-cost routing (LCR) intelligence. When Ku is available, all transmissions are routed over the Ku. In addition, the Commbox can store large file transmissions, which are not urgent, until Ku is available. Hence, the L-band system is relegated to limited use as a backup system only. With Ku coverage increasing, it easy to see that backup L-band will be required less and less, further reducing revenues to the L-band providers. Of course, the final question is how will ships’ crews re-point the Ku antenna as the ship traverses from one Ku beam to another?

The final component of the hybrid is the automatic beam re-pointing technology recently developed by iDirect and Vipersat, a division of Comtech EF Data. Activated through a software upgrade at the hub and the placement of a special server aboard the vessel, Seatel antennas can now be automatically re-pointed without crew intervention. A ship can circumnavigate the globe seamlessly passing from one Ku coverage area to the next.

Of course, the implications to the L-band providers are obvious. As the demand for transmission of large amounts of data increases and higher speeds are in demand, pricing by data volume becomes uneconomical and the Hybrid system becomes the only logical choice. Yet, the question remains, what will drive the demand for high volume, fixed-cost transmission?

With many advantages, the trend toward Ku-at-Sea is already underway. The only restraining factor at this point is the sudden and precipitous fall of shipping rates in the global recession with the resultant restrains to capital outlays. The fact that hardware and installation costs of a system are in the $60,000 range, and that many customers have dozens of ships that must be equipped, has slowed the transition to the Hybrid Ku/L Band alternative.

However, as the recession passes — and they always do — the unstoppable trend toward achieving enhanced efficiency aboard ship through the adoption of high-speed fixed broadband will continue, forcing Inmarsat to make some tough choices.

Burdened by the obligation to recoup the high capital and ongoing operating costs of the i4 system, and threatened by a myriad of tough new VSAT competitors, Inmarsat will be forced to defend its turf. As L-band technology does not allow for unlimited, fixed price access at reasonable cost, we see Inmarsat’s adoption of its own Fleet Broadband/VSAT offering as a necessary strategy to meet the rapidly evolving demands of its core market.

By Alan Gottlieb

Источник: SatMagazine

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