In the world of superyacht technology, one of the most dynamic sectors is that of VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals) and ship-to-shore communications. Ka-band and phased array antennae are just two of the latest buzzwords to enter the superyacht owner’s vocabulary so prepare to update those dictionaries and meet tomorrow’s technologies, today.

The VSAT visionaires

Future-proof your luxury yachtl with the three S’s of superyacht technology: size, stability and system

App, app and away

Increased media consumption driven by the desire of forward-thinking owners to stay connected is omnipresent. With the proliferation of online activities requiring immediate access to always-on connections, the volumes of data consumed by mobile devices is growing exponentially.

A satellite in space

Day-on-day developments make it imperative for owners to fully consider the future implications of the technologies installed on their yachts during today’s build, refit and upgrade projects. Charter guests with tech addictions and online lives to lead will be drawn to the superyacht system that is more iPhone 5 than 1990s flip-phone, as will potential buyers.

What is VSAT?

A professionally designed and implemented communication infrastructure will provide the convenience of a land-based Internet connection, even when accessed from the open ocean. Factors to consider when weighing up Internet at sea options include; coverage, total cost of ownership and future proofing. Terry Birch, head of engineering at Selex ES Yacht Technologies, explains, “The prime method of Internet access at sea is VSAT.

This provides access to data 24/7 with speeds increasing year on year based on the 14Ghz Ku-band, offer speeds of up to 8MB per second, otherwise known as Mbps.” VSAT antennae work by receiving information from satellites and then delivering this (often via WiFi) to user devices on board. Data is returned from these devices to the VSAT antennae then on to the satellite, which then transfers it to a land earth station (LES) to distribute via land networks.

A satellite in space

Because size matters

The first two S’s in the superyacht telecoms triumvirate are size and stability. Choosing VSAT antennae often creates a conflict of interest. Superyacht owners want smaller antennae to maintain the pleasing silhouette of their vessels, but the ugly truth is that bigger is currently better.

Larger antennae provide better quality and a faster, more reliable service over greater coverage areas, and they are also less affected by atmospheric disturbances. Smaller coastal cruisers in ideal conditions can get by with smaller antennae, but ocean-going or sailing vessels will need three-axis stabilisation in order to secure a reliable VSAT service. Antennae with two-axis stabilisation cannot compensate for the rolling and pitching movements causing them to point away from the satellite.  

The Ka-band debut

The third S lingers just within reach, and stands for system. The brand new and highly anticipated Ka-band VSAT system will burst onto the marine telecoms market during the currency of this book, bringing with it increased data speeds of significantly more than 10Mbps and at reduced costs than the existing C-band and Ku-band systems. One potential downside of Ka-band is that its digital signal could be more weather sensitive than other bands (C- and Ku-bands) and may be highly affected by rain fades.

Satellite Communications on board a yacht

Global Xpress is one of the new high-bandwidth, small antenna Ka-band services.  Inmarsat aims to have three of its satellites in orbit and in beta test by the end of 2013, with its full constellation operational from 2014. Once running, this will offer superfast mobile broadband with download speeds of up to 50Mbps through a 60-100cm antenna. Bringing together speed, light antennae and a global service, Global Xpress is set to become a vital on-board communication tool. Imtech Marine is one superyacht-specific reseller of Inmarsat’s mobile satellite communication services. Eric van den Adel, its managing director, said, “We have a long-standing relationship with Inmarsat. The combination of its Ka-band and L-band options with our systems portfolio and worldwide network is an unbeatable one.”

Terry Birch from Selex firmly recommends incorporating multiple routes to the Internet. He said, "A fairly standard fit would be VSAT as the primary communications medium, with an Inmarsat Fleet Broadband (FB) as backup for when the VSAT is out of coverage. Downsides of FB are the airtime package itself, which can be costly, and the fact that its data throughput is not as high as VSAT’s.

As airtime and system providers, we have seen the level of mobile data traffic grow across all types of marine customers. In particular, VSAT systems have gone from being nice-to-have, to being a business and mission-critical system as technologies that make better use of the bandwidth are continually introduced to give a better user experience.

MTN Nexus™, MTN’s next generation network, will be incorporating standard Ku-band and HTMS (High Throughput Multi-Spot Beam Satellite) technology as well as other frequencies including Ka-band and wireless broadband. Connectivity, coupled with caching and computing tools such as cloud computing, products and apps, will further optimise the user experience.

Derik Wagner, managing director of MTN Yacht Services comments, "The beauty of MTN Nexus™ is that owners, guests and crew will benefit from the latest hybrid connectivity technologies, a distributed cloud platform, a consumption-based business model and innovative applications and services geared to greatly improve connectivity at sea...and at the best value.

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