Those of you of a certain age likely remember, back in the mid-1990s, inserting a promotional disk from America Online into your computer and enjoying hours of free Internet and email access before subscribing. You may even remember anticipating the squelch as the modem connected.
Reflecting on those days, it all seems so antiquated. We walk around with mobile phones that are actually mini-computers, letting us shift from texting to emailing to shopping online in mere seconds. We switch from 4G or 5G to Wi-Fi seamlessly. Surely, in several years’ time, we’ll look back at today thinking the same thing as we do about dial-up. Given the pace of technological advancements and increasingly competitive connectivity packages, we’ve become conditioned to expect rapid developments.
When it comes to boaters, though, the desire among consumers and the industry has outpaced the ability — and the affordability. However, connectivity is about to change, dramatically.
Maritime service and terminal providers are finally able to answer a simple question: “Why can’t it be the same as what we get everywhere else?” as Peter Broadhurst, Inmarsat’s senior vice president of yachting, passenger and safety, puts it.
What’s driving the change? “It’s a combination of things,” says Ronald Spithout, Inmarsat’s president of maritime. For instance, satellites improve with each launch; the fifth generation of Inmarsat’s GlobalXpress satellite was more powerful than the first three combined. “It’s getting cheaper to get satellites up, to get satellites built,” he adds. “Technology is making it possible to get more. All of that has a benefit for people on boats.”
Broadhurst says demand for on-board online access was rising even before the pandemic moved boaters to seek refuge on the water. “We’ve been seeing superyacht owners going to areas where they wouldn’t normally go, to more remote locations,” he says. “We’ve seen more people use their yachts a lot more, privately and while in charter.”
To address all of this, Inmarsat recently released Orchestra and Elera. Orchestra is a “network of networks,” Spithout says, bringing together GEO (geostationary orbit) satellites, LEO (low Earth orbit) satellites and terrestrial 5G. The combination eliminates the issues of congested networks in popular ports. A yacht that may be one of hundreds in the Mediterranean can experience the same connectivity as a solitary yacht in Antarctica.
Additionally, Orchestra employs what Inmarsat terms dynamic-mesh technology. It means that a yacht within reach of a 5G signal not only can have enough capacity for its own needs, but also can route capacity onward to other vessels that are beyond terrestrial reach. Since each customer’s terminal can direct traffic to and from another customer terminal, Inmarsat likens the system to a mobile web of terminals, broadening Orchestra’s reach and bolstering performance. “A 45-foot sailing yacht or a 45-meter superyacht will be able to be served,” Broadhurst says.
Elera is a component of Orchestra, an advanced L-band service specifically for mobility customers, ranging from boaters to aviation enthusiasts and governments. It promises dramatically better bandwidth, smaller terminals and lower costs. For instance, speeds should be up to 1.7 Mbps. Compare that to Inmarsat’s current generation of L-band service, where “we were talking 400 kilobits per second,” Spithout says.
The first satellite is scheduled to launch before the end of the year. While new terminals are not yet available, existing FleetBroadband users will be able to use their current antennas after upgrading the below-deck electronics. Ultimately, “the small-boat market will gain from the top end,” Broadhurst says.
Inmarsat isn’t the only company developing smaller terminals and better service. KVH has introduced the TracPhone V30, which is 37 centimeters (about 14½ inches) in diameter, a far cry from the original satcom domes that measured several feet across. While the company has had a same-size antenna, the V3-HTS, for a few years, that antenna requires two coax cables. The TracPhone V30 uses one, and it can be a boater’s existing cable.
“It makes it so much easier,” says Bob Balog, KVH’s chief technology officer.
Additionally, while the V3 antenna employed a combination modem and antenna-control unit in a rack-mounted below-deck installation, the V30 has a much smaller, DC-powered single below-deck unit.
“I’ve been on a lot of boats less than 60 feet, and not a lot of them have electronics racks,” Balog says. The V30 is less than a foot long, about the same size as the television enclosure KVH has been using for several years. “It pushes into a realm where you can do a self-install,” he says.
Balog says the product should appeal to a broader base of boaters than previous setups did. “I think it’ll attract a lot of weekend warriors who have a 38-foot Sea Ray or something a little bigger and want to put an antenna on it, but don’t necessarily beat the heck out of it,” he says.
The V30 also promises data speeds as fast as 6 Mbps for downloads and 2 Mbps for uploads on KVH’s mini-VSAT broadband HTS network, which employs 135 active service beams worldwide. While “not every kid on your boat can stream Netflix in 4K,” Balog says, it’s plenty to surf the Web, check email and post to social media. And there’s built-in cybersecurity on the V30 and the satellite network.
So what’s next? Both Inmarsat and KVH are keeping their next-gen cards close to the vest. One thing’s for certain: It will sure beat dial-up.
This article was originally published in the October 2021 issue.