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LEO providers disrupting maritime satellite communications giants

Informa Markets The low latency connectivity panel at SMLME23
The adoption and capability of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications is challenging established providers in the maritime space, according to experts.

Speaking at Seatrade Maritime Logistics Middle East, a panel on low latency communication covered the rise of LEO providers like Elon Musk’s Starlink, a service which has received strong reviews from seafarers.

Panellist Kris Vedat, Head of Technology and Logistics, P&O Maritime Logistics told Seatrade Martime News that wages were still the main motivator for crews, but far from the only factor when seafarers choose which ship to work on next.

“There’s a shortage of crew, we all know that, so they will become far more picky. Money will not be the only driver, as money can only do so much; then they’ll be thinking about their own welfare and sanity,” said Vedat.

Ben Palmer, Ben Palmer OBE, President, Inmarsat, said that crew were increasingly a competitive advantage for Inmarsat’s customers and the aim is to have happy and motivated crews able to be connected to the world, just like people ashore.

Traditional satellites in geostationary orbits have higher latency and lower bandwidth capability then LEO, but currently offer greater coverage and have been the backbone of maritime communications for decades.

Vedat told Seatrade he was glad services like Starlink had come along to disrupt the communications sector. While the technology was not yet fully mature and proven in an enterprise environment, he believes it has forced maritime satellite communications companies into action after years of resting on their laurels.

“I think there's a lot of change coming. I welcome that, because it's forcing us to think differently about the service we provide; it is forcing us to become more integrated,” said Palmer, adding that new market entrants are expanding the size and shape of the market.

On the latency issue, Nabil Ben Soussia, CEO Asia, Middle East & CIS, IEC Telecom Group said lower latency communication like LEO were removing roadblocks for IT departments as latencies fall from 800 milliseconds to 40 ms.

High latency connections cause issues with secure services like banking, leaving users unable to log in, but with lower latency connections ship operators are free to use the same programmes they use on land without having to develop custom solutions and workarounds.

Despina Panayiotou Theodosiou, CEO, Tototheo Maritime said that lower latency services were much more useful when it comes to monitoring, communication and vessel efficiency applications—a significant driver on increasing vessel data demand—as they enable more effective responses to sensor data.

“Higher bandwidth is becoming such an expected part of crew life now. Anyone onboard expects to be able to do exactly the same things as if they were on land. I can tell you, under traditional technology, that’s difficult to do,” said Vedat.

Soussia said that moving from a few megabits per second to over 200 megabits per second enabled a complete change in onboard practices. “You can do much, much more, but you don't have to keep the same processes; you have to change the overall way the vessel is managed and operated.”

Theodosiou said she had seen a change in the industry’s approach to new technologies and that shipowners are much more willing to trial solutions and roll those that are successful to entire fleets.

“I think the mindset of the industry is really changing, and it's more technology focused than it used to be. As long as all the solutions are user friendly, they can easily integrate into the existing operations,” said Theodosiou.

“There's a lot of disruption coming along, and it's up to the established players to respond. Having a hybrid, multi-level solution is probably where we’ll end up,” said Palmer.

Palmer said that Inmarsat’s focus was on features, seamless connectivity, providing a multi-layer networks through an intelligent, flexible, secure, global, reliable service.