The satellite communications sector of the marine market has not been immune from the corporate consolidations that have swept all other corners of the industry, and while this particular niche has been widely regarded as fragmented, it is yet to be seen what the end effect will be for the communication users.
However, it can be assumed that competition is still keen, and the name of the communication game continues to center on quality, reliability and capabilities. With an increasing emphasis on the transmission of data rather than traditional voice or fax, it can be assumed that continued efforts will center on widening the information "pipeline" between vessel and shore.
Stratos Global Corporation in late August signed definitive agreements to acquire the Inmarsat, VSAT and aeronautical businesses of British Telecommunications plc for approximately CDN$340 million. BT A&M is a provider of remote communications solutions, providing a full range of Inmarsat, VSAT and terrestrial solutions to customers in a variety of industries. BT A&M operates four teleports including two Inmarsat earth stations located at Goonhilly in the southwest of England and Netley in New Zealand.
At the time of the announcement, Stratos president and CEO, Derek Woods said "The transaction expands the geographic reach of our service offerings, gives us a strong entry into the North Sea oil and gas market, adds to our maritime capability and expands our portfolio of value-added products including the addition of a maritime portal with e-commerce capabilities."
The proposed transaction is subject to regulatory approvals.
Meanwhile, SpecTec's parent company Visma ASA signed an agreement to sell its marine division — SpecTec Group — to Netherlands-based Station 12 for about $85 million. Station 12 has a service portfolio for voice, fax and (high) speed data mobile solutions based on the Inmarsat platform, and has been a leading player within the maritime industry for more than 15 years, that has aggressively pursued and captured a significant portion of complimentary companies during the past 12 months. It is 65 percent owned by Dutch telecommunications operator KPN and 35 percent by Australian telecommunications operator Telstra (TLSYY)
The SpecTec acquisition is significant because the company has a portfolio of IT tools and application software to increase maritime operational efficiency includes database construction, training, outsourcing and consulting services. These capabilities are complementary to Station 12's activities and portfolio.
Knut Reed, CEO of Station 12 added: "We are very excited about this acquisition. It is line with our strategy. The combination of the world's leading maritime communication and software providers sets a new standard for service providers to this industry. Station 12 sets the pace in the convergence of mobile satcom, applications and e-commerce, to provide innovative solutions to our current and new customers". The much-anticipated takeover of Comsat by Lockheed Martin (LMT)
— which was initially announced in September 1998 — was finalized towards the end of the summer, and the result is Lockheed Martin Global Telecommunications (LMGT), a new business with revenues estimated to approach $1 billion/year. Services in the U.S. will be offered under the LMGT banner, while offshore Comsat International operations will retain their current designations. Falling back on the vast resources of both companies, the new entity is sure to be a major force in all markets its serves, including of course the marine market. LMGT becomes the U.S. owner, and the largest shareholder, in both Intelsat and Inmarsat systems.
Ship and boat owners are harnessing the power of advanced communications capabilities in many different forms: such as a profit center for specialized vessels such as cruise ships; and as employee benefits for seamen forced to spend months at a time away from home. But the core value of increased and cheaper communication lies in the ability to share information between vessel and shore. Increasingly, companies are empowering onboard personnel with the responsibilities for the input and upkeep of valuable databases of information — information, which in turn is helping owners to operate and maintain fleets more efficiently and cost effectively.
One of the more innovative competitors in the realm of shipboard communications has been Boatracs, business unit of Advanced Remote Communication Solutions, Inc. (ARCOMS). In September the company announced that it had reached an agreement to develop an integrated information management system for the Seabulk Offshore Gulf of Mexico workboat fleet. The deal calls for an information system that allows for the crew to enter data directly into a database resident onboard the vessels. The data will then be transmitted via Satellite to Seabulk's offices and imported into a corresponding database. Initially the information system will allow Seabulk to receive daily master's logs, produce all payroll information, track and account for all fuel and lube, report all accidents and incidents and provide Seabulk customers with information via the Internet.
According to Bill Merritt, operations manager of Crew Boats, U.S. Gulf of Mexico for Seabulk Offshore, "The beauty of the Boatracs system is that it enabled us to address our early communications needs with a relatively simple solution that required a smaller investment and provided greater flexibility than other available systems. Our company is now ready to migrate from basic communication and positioning into a seamless information system between our vessels and our offices."
MarineOne Corporation recently released three -(3) new product lines: MarinePC, Marine Navigator and Marine Guardian, and subsequently announced a contract to place the systems aboard five ENSCO (ESV)
MarinePC is a High-Speed Marine Hardened Computer available in both Type Approved- ABS, DNV, Lloyds and Industrial Grade versions. The Marine Navigator is an Electronic Chart and Integrated Navigation System. The Marine Guardian is a complete series of Alarm, Monitoring, Control and Automation systems. The company sold five integrated MarinePC and Marine Navigator systems for use onboard the Ensco President, Ensco Admiral, Ensco Captain, Ensco Navigator and the Ensco Commander.
"We are very excited about the introduction of these new product lines, and believe that we have developed unique and innovative products for the marine marketplace that will be distributed by our direct sales efforts as well as through distributors, dealers and on-line at The Marine Store, our internet shopping portal," said Steve Weems, president and CEO of MarineOne.
Shipowner Increases Security, Reduces Communication Cost
Greek shipowner and operator Marine Management Services (MMS) has been a firm advocate of technology-based communications systems for more than 15 years, as it was a leader in the use of e-mail messaging as far back as 1984. Its Piraeus office is the hub of its communications network, serving the U.K. and U.S. regional offices in London and New York, as well as its fleet of bulk carriers and tankers.
Since the 1980s MMS has progressively upgraded its computer systems to maintain a state-of-the-art system. "In the late-1980s offshore communications were costing us about $100 per vessel per day ($3,000 per month), mainly because of our extensive use of less economical and efficient communication systems and technologies available at that time," said Constantinos Psomopoulos, Marine Management's Information Services (I.S.) manager. "From early 1991 onwards very significant reductions were made — down to an average of $1,200 per vessel per month — achieved with newer messaging technology and the use of GN Comtext's global communications network. This was some 80 percent lower than our actual costs would have been, with a real saving of about 60 percent when taking the growth of our traffic volumes into account."
During the January-June 2000 period the company's communications costs were between $900-1,100 per vessel per month, "which is considered to be a further, very satisfactory reduction in this area of operational expense," according to Psomopoulos. "When compared with the 1980s figure of $3,000 per month, and taking into account the underlying impact of cost increases driven by inflation during the past 15 years or so, the present result is even more significant," he added.
At end-1998 MMS moved to upgrade again, and Psomopoulos selected Lotus Domino for all office-based messaging control and management requirements. Although the system provides a very secure environment under the Lotus Domino's cross certification process, the service available from GN Comtext at this point in time — for switching messages over SMTP — is limited to the protocol security. The total security of communications necessary to meet MMS's particular demands is an aspect Psomopoulos is currently working on with GN Comtext's office in Greece.
"All incoming and outgoing telex, fax and e-mail messages will be in the same environment," explains Maria Kartali of GN Comtext Hellas' Athens office. "Messages will be "encrypted" from our customer's Domino server through to the Internet then on to GN Comtext's server, where they will be decrypted and delivered to all destination addressees."
The company recently strengthened its line with the development of a low-cost messaging service specifically tailored to meet seafarer's needs. Dubbed Ocean-Connect Ocean-Mail, the system allows crew to send and receive private messages round the clock, worldwide, with no impact on shipboard communications systems. The system was developed in conjunction with Inmarsat, Stratos and Thrane & Thrane, and is designed to avoid onboard administration as well as easy installation.
Globe Wireless offers a similar system, a system it says provides sailors with the benefits of e-mail with no cost to the vessel. GlobeCrew allows crew member to register for e-mail accounts with Globe Wireless, and charges are handled via either prepaid or credit card options. For vessels equipped with both HF and Satellite connections, crew messages are always transmitted to and from shore using the Globe Wireless Digital HF Radio Network, ensuring that crew messages do not increase the company's satellite connection time and cost.