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Fleet Xpress brings “smart” ship tipping point

High profile customers and technology partners are swiftly committing to shipping’s new era of connectivity through a series of agreements to use the world’s first global maritime high-speed broadband service from a single network operator. Officially launched on March 30, Inmarsat Maritime’s revolutionary Fleet Xpress has unleashed the power of ‘big data’ to enhance vessel efficiency, while delivering transformational but cost-controlled connectivity to the maritime industry..

Fleet Xpress delivers high-speed data transmission with unmatched reliability, switching automatically between Ka-band and Inmarsat FleetBroadband L-band services to ensure constant coverage.

“Fleet Xpress alters the asset management capabilities and frontline working experience of an entire industry,” says Inmarsat Maritime President, Ronald Spithout. “It will optimize vessel safety, security and efficiency, and meet the connectivity needs of the modern seafarer that have for too long been overlooked.”

Separate agreements announced in June with VSAT service providers Marlink and SpeedCast International suggest that leading maritime value added service providers agree. Both organisations already describe Fleet Xpress as key to their maritime services portfolios. SpeedCast says the service is fully integrated within its SIGMA gateway, while Marlink emphasises access to a range of options that include its XChange communication management platform, with ‘Bring Your Own Device’ crew connectivity.

SpeedCast and Marlink have committed to roll out Fleet Xpress to approximately 2,000 vessels apiece over the next five years.

Market migration
Direct agreements with shipowners also quickly followed the Fleet Xpress service launch. Early contracts were announced covering installations on 70 Nanjing Tanker Corporation ships.

However, the appeal of Fleet Xpress is not limited to the cargo-carrying ship sector. Even before its commercial launch, trials on the ice-class adventure ship Ocean Nova in Antarctica delivered the low-horizon satellite views through heavy cloud cover and precipitation that operators routinely face in such hostile waters. So satisfactory were the trials that owner Nova Cruising Ltd committed to the commercial installation of Fleet Xpress.

“Fleet Xpress delivered on its promise of high-speed seamless mobile broadband in one of the world’s most difficult areas for most satellite systems,” says Dr Luis Soltero, Chief Technology Officer of project partner Global Marine Networks.

In early June, Inmarsat announced a first commitment to Fleet Xpress from a superyacht owner, for the 44m sail yacht Juliet at Royal Huisman Shipyard, the Netherlands. The project involved installation of a new Sailor 100GX VSAT system and the Inmarsat GX bespoke below deck equipment configuration.

Gerbrand Schalkwijk, Chief Sales Officer, Inmarsat Maritime, says the maritime package has been eagerly anticipated by an industry seeking to take advantage of high-speed Ka-band with ultra-reliable FleetBroadband L-band service acting as unlimited backup. “We expect up to 1,000 ships will be using Fleet Xpress before the end of 2016,” he says.

For the first time, he explains, ship/shore connectivity is so reliable that service agreements can include network availability guarantees, with minimum and maximum of data throughput “so that customers know in advance what they are paying for”. Fleet Xpress also brings ‘Inmarsat Gateway’ access, which “effectively connects ships to landside offices via VPN”, opening up a new world of content-rich applications for shipping.

Enabling change
For its part, Inmarsat Maritime is cultivating the ‘service ecosystem’ for smarter shipping. It has approved new generation antenna systems from Cobham, JRC, and Intellian to meet requirements, but also devised the Certified Application Partner (CAP) programme to encourage the development of software and hardware that is compatible with Fleet Xpress.

The CAP programme offers a framework for maritime big data to drive smarter shipping. It looks beyond more timely updates of more data, better voyage planning, remote monitoring/ diagnostics, and better repair scheduling, to more imaginative applications: telemedicine; video conferencing; and video surveillance, to name but three. An Inmarsat Developer Conference, held in London earlier this year to hear presentations from existing and potential CAP partners was heavily oversubscribed.

At the industry’s leading edge of technology, Inmarsat is also a partner in the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), led by Rolls-Royce. Funded by the Finnish research institute Tekes, the €6.6 million project runs until 2017. “Fleet Xpress delivers the vital ship-to-shore communications required to support the remote control functionality fundamental to the realisation of the autonomous ship,” says Inmarsat Maritime President Spithout.

Whatever the outcomes of this radical scheme, Inmarsat expects it to yield tangible progress for data transfer ship-ship and ship-shore, with significant consequences for the way ships are managed and worked at sea.

Life at sea transformed
In the more immediate term, ship crews working today will be among those feeling the most significant transformation due to Fleet Xpress. The seafaring life still consists of extended periods of working under pressure, punctuated by opportunities for intense boredom. It also continues to involve long periods of separation from family, friends and the world at large, adding up to a burden of isolation.

This is despite the fact that, according that the Maritime Labour Convention: ‘Every seafarer should have reasonable access to ship-to-shore telephone communications, email and Internet facilities, where available, with any charges for the use of these services being reasonable in amount.’

Drew Brandy, Senior-Vice President, Inmarsat Maritime points out that 73% of seafarers take into account ship-shore connectivity when deciding which ship to join, according to the 2015 Crew Connectivity Survey from Futurenautics. The same survey reports seafarers on average bringing three communication devices onboard ship, with 77% now carrying a Smartphone.

Meeting seafarer expectations of access to VOIP and Video Chat services will be a key plus point for Fleet Xpress bandwidth because owners will be able to do so without compromising their operating costs. The migration of existing customers from XpressLink Ku-band services to the Ka-band based Fleet Xpress will “double the bandwidth available at no additional cost,” according to Brandy.

Critical momentum
If emerging crew attitudes are a spur and global end-user agreements suggest shipping is easing into the Ka-band era, the recent appointment of Satlink Satellite Communications as a further Inmarsat partner may also be telling. Satlink, whose Satbox and Tracklite service will become integrated as ‘value added’ features of Fleet Xpress, is the largest single XpressLink provider for Inmarsat globally. Its customer base includes MSC Shipmanagement Limited and Columbia Shipmanagement Ltd.

Inmarsat Maritime has separately disclosed intentions to transition more than 2,600 existing XpressLink installations and convert its committed XpressLink backlog to Fleet Xpress over the next three years.

Maritime President Spithout believes the opportunity for an industry transition is now ripe. “We are already committed to future service enhancements by contracting Airbus to build the first two satellites for our sixth-generation I-6 fleet. But the partnerships we have put in place for Fleet Xpress and our engagements on hardware, software, service and distribution mean that the tipping point for maritime communications as a whole is 2016, not at some time in the future.”

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Getting a Handle on Data Usage


As ships rely increasingly on broadband connectivity to improve operational efficiency and provide crew welfare, bandwidth management has become a critical need. On vessels today, broadband connectivity is needed for access to critical weather and navigational information as well as secure communications with fleet operations management. Real-time access to sea condition information, fleet and port data, and remote systems support capabilities can enhance crew safety, save fuel, reduce operational expenses, and ensure compliance with an ever-expanding array of regulations. Broadband connectivity is also the lifeline for seafarers — who consider communications with family and access to the Internet as must-haves for life onboard. If vessels want to attract and retain qualified crew, they need to provide connectivity. It all adds up to an emphasis on managing broadband data usage.

KVH has introduced the myKVH web portal to enable ship operators, fleet managers, and vessel officers to effectively manage onboard data usage. The tool is designed to provide the transparency and accountability that is essential for a ship to get the most value from its broadband data plan, which is typically based on a monthly allotment of airtime.

KVH introduced the myKVH web portal in October 2015 at the same time it introduced new airtime plans for its mini-VSAT Broadband service, which provides connectivity to thousands of vessels worldwide. The new airtime plans deliver data at maximum speeds on the mini-VSAT Broadband network at every price point. In some cases, the top downlink speed of 4 Mbps is 15 times faster than previous plans, while the cost has been reduced by one third. The new airtime plans feature monthly allotments of data in a wide range, giving fleet managers the ability to choose a data allotment that fits the vessels’ budget and needs.

With a vessel utilizing a monthly allotment of data, it becomes extremely important to be able have visibility into the amount of data being consumed. The myKVH web portal provides a single secure site with the tools to enable a ship operator to manage network usage by vessel or by individual crew members, allocate operational and crew data, and receive customized usage alerts by email and SMS text message. It is available for no additional cost to every customer using KVH’s mini-VSAT Broadband service. With the myKVH web portal, operators have a tool to proactively monitor bandwidth usage so that one runaway user can no longer compromise an entire vessel’s connectivity.

Secure, fleet-wide monitoring with map and grid displays is another benefit of the myKVH tool for onshore staff. The fleet-wide view shows IT managers and ship superintendents at a glance where their vessels are and the status of their mini-VSAT Broadband systems. It also enables them to view support cases across the entire fleet, maximizing the value of their KVH investment.

As the sophistication of maritime broadband communications grows, managing onboard data usage will become ever more important for every vessel. The myKVH web portal is designed for the visibility and accountability that fleet managers need to make the smartest use of connectivity.

This past December, Inmarsat achieved global commercial service for its high-speed broadband service Global Xpress. The service was formed by three Ka-band high-speed mobile broadband communications satellites launched from Kazakhstan over the last three years. A fourth satellite being built by Boeing in California will provide extra capacity when it launches later this year.

GX operates in the resilient Ka-band, while integrating seamlessly with Inmarsat’s L-band network to allow customers across aviation, maritime, enterprise and government sectors to have reliable and assured access to high-throughput communications.

With Cisco, Inmarsat has also developed the Inmarsat Service Enablement Platform (ISEP) and the Inmarsat Gateway, which will deliver a whole new world of innovative, content-rich applications – developed by our Certified Application Partners – tailored to meet GX users’ needs.

During the course of 2016, Inmarsat will be introducing a series of market-specific, high-speed connectivity services powered by Global Xpress.

Inmarsat has signed up several manufacturers and value-added resellers to distribute its Global Xpress services. Among the manufacturers on the maritime and offshore sector are Cobham, Intellian, JRC, and RigNet.

At last year’s International Workboat Show in New Orleans, Intellian displayed its GX60, a compact maritime stabilized terminal designed to use Inmarsat’s GX broadband service. Built and supplied with an Integrated GX modem, the GX60 installs easily and quickly delivers high-speed connectivity.

A real benefit of the GX60, explains Paul Comyns, Intellian’s Vice President Global Marketing, is its small size, integrated design, and intuitive user interface. It means operators can install and commission the terminal in relatively the same amount of time as a FleetBroadband system. It can also deliver speeds of up to 50 Mbps. The radome dimension is 90 cm x 103 cm and the antenna weighs about 132 lbs.

Also on display at the Workboat Show was Cobham SATCOM’s SAILOR 60 GX, a new super-light and compact Ka-band VSAT antenna. The new 60cm antenna system is designed for Inmarsat’s new Fleet Xpress service.

Weighing just 82 lbs/37 kg, the SAILOR 60 GX user terminal features one of the lightest Ka-band antennas and boasts leading radio performance to ensure a reliable link to the satellite and more availability of communication services. For workboats and offshore vessels with space restrictions a new SAILOR 60 GX combined with a SAILOR FleetBroadband system is the perfect on board hardware platform for Inmarsat’s game-changing new maritime multi-band satcom service.

A key advantage of SAILOR 60 GX’s small size and low weight is the ability to reduce installation time and costs, which could lead to better value monthly service subscriptions. It is also likely that vessels with existing FleetBroadband antennas will experience more value as they already have a core component of Fleet Xpress on board, making SAILOR the ideal companion for workboat operators aiming to achieve optimal ROI on maritime broadband.

SAILOR 60 GX will enable more workboats to operate smarter through harnessing the power of Inmarsat Fleet Xpress, by enabling significant data sharing capabilities and the drive towards smart operations. The optimal size/performance balance of SAILOR 60 GX is possible because Inmarsat Global Xpress satellites use spot beams instead of wide beams, so with advanced engineering and software design, antenna size is becoming less relevant and they can operate anywhere in the satellite footprint and provide a strong link.

The lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum SAILOR 60 GX comes pre-configured for Fleet Xpress and features ‘one touch commissioning’, meaning that during installation it can be online in seconds with no requirement to contact the Network Operations Center (NOC).

At 1,297 feet long, the MSC Zoe, along with her sister ships MSC Oliver and MSC Oscar are some of the largest container ships in the world. When she set sail this past summer on her inaugural voyage, the MSC Zoe was equipped with high-speed Marlink Maritime VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) on board. Marlink VSAT services provide reliable connectivity for operational and crew communications on MSC Zoe and 130 other MSC ships. MSC uses a suite of integrated IT solutions designed to reduce network administration on board and provide easy access to communication services for crew, all enabled by the XChange communications management platform from Marlink.

Recently added to MSC Zoe’s communications solutions and being rolled-out across the MSC fleet is XChange Universal Remote Access (URA), a unique system that provides secure remote access to computers on board from the shore office. MSC is already experiencing higher uptime for IT systems across the fleet due to the improved remote maintenance and troubleshooting capabilities provided by URA. The system differs from standard remote access solutions, which are designed for specific terminals or protocols and require their own IP address. Since it is a universal access solution, MSC can use the same tool to access IT systems on MSC Zoe, its largest ship, as on any other ship regardless of age or type across its entire fleet.

XChange as standard also provides communication lines for MSC crews to easily stay in contact with their families and friends via email, internet and social media, while giving full control of access and costs to administrators on shore. For MSC, this functionality has been extended by XChange BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), a ready-to-use Wi-Fi solution and accompanying apps that provide voice and data access for crew using their own smartphones, tablets or laptops. By ensuring straightforward account administration and streamlining payment using pre-paid cards, XChange BYOD helps MSC to meet the requirement of its maritime professionals to access the Internet via Wi-Fi using their own devices.