Vessel Communications: Inland Comms Evolve

By Joseph Keefe

SATCOM’s Availability, Pricing and Utility tempts marine users left unsatisfied by limitations of cellular communication.

The inland operator hoping to survive in tomorrow’s rapidly emerging business environment using cellular communications alone is likely to be, as a minimum, disappointed. In a worst case scenario, they may find themselves out of business. That said; there are options that inland transportation businesses can turn to when trying to effectively manage their far-flung businesses. One such option involves the KVH inland solution.
According to Steve Griffin, Manager, Commercial Sales at KVH Industries, Inc., the launch of the TracPhone V3ip gave inland operators a solution that had not previously been made available to them; A small antenna that can fit on this size vessel, as well as a compact and fully integrated below deck unit which provides VoIP, complete network bandwidth management, data compression, least cost routing, and 4 Ethernet ports.  Griffin adds, “Not only is it clean – it is simple. This simplicity results in lower installation costs.  Combined – the market now has a solution that can completely control every aspect of data and voice on their fleet of vessels, directly from the IT Manager’s office.”

Coverage, Price and Everything in Between
While there is still a difference in costs between operating within a cell phone companies’ non-roaming footprint, SATCOM delivers something that is truly lacking – complete coverage along the inland water ways. According to Griffin, his customers say that they can count on cell coverage around 60 percent of the time – and it appears to be getting worse. Unlike the usual usage areas for the majority of the US population who live within major cellular regions, the reality is that the inland riverways are extremely remote at times. Griffin insists, “It then comes down to how productive and efficient a company wished to be while in these areas … the other 40%.”
The most difficult thing for an Operations or IT Manager to do, in regard to upgrading communications, is justify their internal budget – as well as to request increases when needed. Many inland operators have been utilizing the same service for many years. Thus, their annual communications budgets haven’t changed too much.  With the ongoing demand to operate a more efficient fleet – they must run like clockwork, regardless of where they are located.  To continue to drive towards better efficiency – having access to all vessels in their fleet at any time is truly critical.  If reports can’t be sent – and proactive communications can’t take place – then the company is not operating at 100%. This touches all aspects of their business (Crew / HR, technical training, vessel operations, vessel maintenance, and most importantly – the customers).  It all comes down to the company being able to justify the benefit of always being connected to their vessels with the supporting expenses. As these requirements grow – so will their potential communications budgets. However, the ROI over the course of 3 to 5 years will certainly be in their favor – as more data than ever will need to be consumed in order to be compliant with various maritime regulations, both current and future.
For the time being, and while the cost of SATCOM and broadband remains higher than cellular plans, the difference between the two has closed measurably in the last five years.

SATCOM for Inland Business
SATCOM has the advantage of being able to handle large data packages and increased bandwidth for marine operators who are increasingly running more sophisticated monitoring systems for a myriad of purposes. Vessels which are operating within cellular coverage will certainly enjoy a good experience when it comes to connectivity and the amount of bandwidth that is available. Many of these large file transfers (Daily Reports, Grocery Lists, Support and Maintenance manuals, etc.) are becoming an extremely important part of vessel operations, and this trend can be expected to continue. The real question, then, is how vessel owners and operators will be able to run their businesses efficiently when outside of cellular coverage. As the demand for customers wanting to always have connectivity increases – SATCOM becomes that much more attractive.

KVH partners with many software providers – as they need a vehicle to deliver their solutions. In particular, their relationship with Boatracs is an interesting one. And, that’s because Boatracs has their own narrow band solution that they offer in conjunction with their software. Nevertheless,  about one year ago, KVH teamed up with Boatracs to offer a “one-stop” fleet management solution that includes the TracPhone V3, mini-VSAT Broadband service, and Boatracs BTConnect and Boatracs BTForms. For its part, Boatracs saw that the next wave of solutions would need to include true broadband connections. And, according to Irwin Rodriguez, President and CEO of Boatracs, “In the future, mission critical operations on the water will not be supported by cellular communications alone.” As for KVH, and aside from extolling the quality of their offerings, Rodriguez told MarineNews in June, “KVH is, in our experience, the lowest cost broadband provider out there today. They do a great job of simplifying pricing plans for operations.”

Steve Griffin maintains that there are many layers to the broadband onion. He explains, “The market has showed me two things; Crew Welfare is extremely important, and budgets are very tight. What really needed to be done was for a solutions provider to offer an easier way for operators and owners to manage their communications. In many instances, least cost routing (utilizing multiple platforms for communications – with an order of priority being in place) has helped overcome these issues. KVH V-series IP products all come with least cost routing built in, so that the company can offer a certain level of usage to operations and crew based on the current connection. If the customer is using the V-series product as back up to an existing cellular network (for out of coverage areas only), they can limit the amount of users and / or data consumption on the satellite connections – however leave it wide open for all on the cellular connection.”
KVH’s Commbox technology can also allow IT and HR managers to control what type of content is available on their vessels – should they wish to block certain website categories all together (regardless of the connection – cellular or mini-VSAT). These types of solutions allow managers to truly manage their vessels communications the way it is managed within their offices. Griffin adds, “At the end of the day, the vessels are offices, and most likely the biggest assets that these companies own.”

Boatracs and KVH
The Boatracs / KVH partnership is a curious one. With Boatracs already providing a narrow band solution in-house for their customers to transmit date back and forth, customers already have exactly what they need to get the job done. Using the Boatracs narrow band solution, customers get the benefit of a slow, but extremely reliable connection. On the other hand, and with sophisticated engine monitoring software and other data demands evolving for this industry, the need for what Irwin Rodriguez calls “mission critical, 24/7” information is growing. Accordingly, so is the customer demand for SATCOM and broadband solutions.
“We are very excited to integrate KVH’s industry-leading mini-VSAT Broadband service with Boatracs software for our customer base,” said Rodrigues. “We work with small to medium operators in the offshore, coastal and inland waterways, as well as commercial fishing vessels. These companies want voice and data services for crew welfare, increased compliance and greater productivity, as well as a powerful fleet management solution to track, message and operate their vessels efficiently.
The Boatracs Broadband Fleet Management Solution provides a complete, reliable, and affordable way to meet these needs.”
The TracPhone V3 is the world’s smallest maritime VSAT antenna, designed for vessels as small as 30 feet. With airtime rates 1/10th the cost of L-band systems, the TracPhone V3 offers downloads as fast as 2 Mbps at $0.99 per MB and phone calls worldwide at only $0.49 per minute. The TracPhone V3’s small size, fast data rates, and affordable service have brought the power of satellite communications within reach for commercial vessels.

Looking Ahead
As MarineNews went to press, KVH had announced yet another partnership; this time with Jeppesen, supporting Jeppesen Chart Subscribers with New IP-MobileCast Content Delivery Service. According to KVH, the plan involves economical, weekly, multicast delivery of the entire updated Jeppesen ENC and Professional+ Chart Databases over the Mini-VSAT Broadband Service. Clearly, that can’t be supported over a cellular connection, either.
Separately, the looming subchapter M regulatory scheme may be just around the corner and has some operators scrambling to find a software solution to organize their compliance plans. Scores of smaller and medium sized companies who had never before considered management software – or SATCOM, for that matter – are taking a hard look at both. And, for those hoping to connect with the main office intranet or company servers, there may be no other alternative going forward.
Cellular communications for inland operators, slow and sometimes unreliable, will be a part of the vessel-to-shore equation for a while longer. In the meantime, operators are weighing the increased costs of Broadband and SATCOM against the obvious advantages that the latter option provides. Arguably, it only a matter of time before the scales tip the other way.

(As published in the July 2013 edition of Marine News -


Marine News Magazine, page 32,  Jul 2013

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