Inmarsat, the original mobile satcom provider for the maritime industry, has been riding the crest of a wave recently, with users at an all-time high, overall 99.9 per cent satellite reliability and the launch of its Fleet F77, Mobile ISDN and Mobile Packet Data services for the maritime community. Ruth Ling reports on what's new and what lies on the horizon.
Twenty years ago, a revolution hit the maritime industry. Satellite communications became available to ships at sea.
Back in 1982, when Inmarsat began offering onboard satellite communications, its first and only system was Inmarsat A, which offered voice, facsimile, telex and data services. After nine years of successful service and expansion into most maritime sectors, Inmarsat began offering Inmarsat C.
Initially, maritime users gained access to this packet data service via the telex network. Later, various Inmarsat service providers offered data messaging without the need to format messages as telexes. This enhancement offered users around the world access to Inmarsat C messaging using only an off-the-shelf PC and basic modem.
With the global proliferation of Internet e-mail for business and private communications, various Inmarsat service providers took steps to upgrade their Inmarsat C service by offering connectivity via the Internet.
At the same time, thousands of SOLAS-compliant merchant vessels of 300 grt or more began installing Inmarsat C as a requirement of the GMDSS. Now, with Internet service in place, the operators of these vessels and other Inmarsat C-equipped vessels can easily send and receive Internet e-mail messages with owners, operators, agents, vendors, and their families and friends.
Inmarsat now has more than 22 years of experience in designing, implementing and operating satellite networks. Its portfolio of satellite solutions includes voice, fax, e-mail, Internet and intranet access and other data services at speeds of up to 64 kbits/sec., and permits such applications as remote telemetry and telemedicine. And, as any seafarer knows, Inmarsat provides the communications element of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).
A subsidiary of Inmarsat Ventures plc, Inmarsat Ltd owns and operates a global network of nine satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the Equator. Its solutions are delivered through a network of approximately 200 distributors and other service providers operating in more than 150 countries to end users in the maritime, land and aeronautical sectors.
But the company knows there are other satellite communication providers snapping at its heels — newer, smaller, but just as determined to be a leader in this burgeoning and exciting industry. So Inmarsat isn't resting on its laurels; it is continuously developing new products, services and initiatives, often in conjunction with partner companies.
Pre-Emption Guarantees Priority For Safety
The company's latest product is Fleet F77, a new maritime service, which was announced at Europort 2001 in November. It is unique in that it has two communications options, one which enables a shipping company to pay only for the actual volume of data sent and received, the other to be charged for the amount of time spent online, as has always been the case previously.
It is currently the only satcom solution to meet the International Maritime Organization's latest criteria for new services within the GMDSS safety standard, enabling high priority distress, urgency and safety calls to override lower priority communications.
Rescue authorities calling a vessel equipped with Fleet F77 will always be able to contact a ship, even if the voice or data channel is in continuous use at a lower priority. Not only will pre-emption work seamlessly, but it will always work in a hierarchical manner: a distress call will pre-empt all other communications, an urgency call will pre-empt both safety and routine calls, and a safety call will pre-empt a routine call.
The new IMO criteria were formulated after a maritime incident in November 1994 when the passenger liner Achille Lauro caught fire and sank off the coast of Somalia and 930 passengers were rescued by the tanker Hawaiian King. But the subsequent increased use of the Inmarsat-A terminal on the Hawaiian King prevented the maritime rescue co-ordination center (MRCC) from contacting the ship. The situation was safely resolved by the MRCC using additional safety equipment, Inmarsat C, to alert the Hawaiian King to clear the voice channel on its Inmarsat-A for safety communications.
The incident highlighted the need to provide some form of call pre-emption capability for future GMDSS satellite communication equipment. The eventual result was that, in November 1999, the IMO issued a new Resolution, A.888 (21), which set out criteria for the provision of new mobile satcom systems in the GMDSS. These are that any system being designed for use in the GMDSS must be able to recognize the four levels of priority and that new systems should provide prioritized pre-emption.
At press time, details of Inmarsat's Fleet F77 GMDSS capabilities were scheduled to be presented to the next session of the IMO Sub-committee on Communications and Search and Rescue (COMSAR) at its session in February 2002.
"From the safety point of view, the new Inmarsat Fleet F77 equipment offers a very important tool to the search-and-rescue community, and enables it to improve its service to seafarers," says Kees Koning, Head of the Communications Department of the Netherlands Coastguard, based at the Rescue Co-ordination Center in Ijmuiden.
"Many rescue operations have been hampered by the fact that the MRCC could not contact the vessel because the Inmarsat terminal was occupied for other communications," adds Koning.
In addition to the advanced safety service, Fleet F77 can deliver a wide range of superior commercial communications capabilities: voice, fax and data services at speeds of up to 64 kbit/s, including Mobile Packet Data and ISDN data delivery.
Maritime users thus have the flexibility to choose the most cost-efficient two-way communications service for their varying data requirements. The Mobile Packet Data service for the maritime community is currently offered only via Inmarsat, and charges users only for the volume of data they send and receive, not for the time they are connected. This enables mariners to send and receive information on a real-time basis, rather than the traditional practice of dialing up once or twice daily.
For the first time, ships can become an always-connected 'node' or connection in the LAN or WAN network. In effect, they can be fully integrated into the wider business infrastructure and access all the standard desktop and specialist maritime applications available in any office environment, while shore-based managers can get enhanced reporting and connection with their ships - virtually anywhere in the world.
Potential applications include up-to-date meteorological reports, maritime chart and navigational updates, logistics, secure online business dialogue and instant messaging, e-commerce and online procurement applications, berthing information and booking for ports, accessing online safety information, 'real-time' e-mail (business and personal), access to corporate Intranets and telemedicine.
Mobile ISDN connects easily with existing applications using standard ISDN interfaces; it is ideal for data-intensive applications such as oceanographic chart updates and bulk file transfer.
Inmarsat Fleet F77 capitalizes on the established Mobile Packet Data technology, with further advances developed for the maritime environment. The terminals, which utilize a stabilized antenna, are being developed initially by Nera of Norway and Thrane & Thrane of Denmark, with additional models expected from JRC (Japan), Glocom (USA) and STN Atlas (Germany) in coming months.
Thus, the benefits already enjoyed by ship operators between their corporate offices are being made available to the maritime market, which can now harness the speed of ISDN or the flexibility and cost-efficiency of mobile packet data.
"Some solutions such as e-mails and web access will benefit from the potential of 'always connected' that the Mobile Packet Data service offers, while more data-intensive applications, such as maritime chart updates, will continue to benefit from a plug-and-play mobile ISDN solution," says Michael Butler, managing director of Inmarsat Ltd.
"The point is that the customer at sea now has the choice."
Inmarsat Fleet F77 service will be available via Inmarsat's global network of partners. Telenor Broadband Services AS (Norway), Telenor Satellite Services Inc (USA), Xantic (Netherlands and Australia), KDDI (KDDIF.PK)
(Japan), OteSat (Greece), France Telecom and Telecom Italia are all expected to launch the service in the second quarter of 2002. Other partners, such as Stratos (UK and Canada), MCN (China) and SingTel (Singapore), also plan to offer the service this year.
Inmarsat Fleet F77 is the first in a family of Fleet services that will eventually feature three solutions designed to meet the requirements of specific maritime sectors.
On A Roll
"The development of Fleet F77 illustrates Inmarsat's continued commitment to improving communications and safety provision in the maritime industry," says Butler. "And don't forget that Inmarsat consistently exceeds the minimum IMO requirement for 99.9 per cent system availability for ship-to-shore distress alerts."
As evidence of this commitment, Inmarsat launched a new safety database for the maritime community in March 2001, specifically for use by Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centers (MRCCs) around the world. The database provides MRCCs with immediate round-the-clock access to all the information needed to assist vessels in distress (including the ship's name and call sign, nationality and ship owner's 24-hour contact number), thereby cutting life-saving minutes off emergency rescue operations.
According to Steve Huxley, Staff Officer at the UK's Falmouth MRCC, the new database is "a valuable tool for investigating all Inmarsat alerts received by a rescue center. Reliable, up-to-date information is critical for any modern search-and-rescue organization, and the Inmarsat database was successfully used by Falmouth MRCC within weeks of becoming available."
The company has also reaffirmed its support for its original analogue communications system, Inmarsat A, which is still used extensively in the maritime market despite being 20 years old, with a US$7million upgrade of the Inmarsat A system, which was announced in 2001. This includes new generation Network Co-ordination Stations (NCSs) for the system, which are owned by Inmarsat and operated by Partner LESOs in Japan, Norway, Singapore and the UK.
To encourage more seafarers to use onboard satellite communications, last year also saw Inmarsat launching several marketing initiatives, including pre-paid calling cards and installing mini-M terminals and payphones on ships for crews to use independently of the other communications systems onboard.
The pre-paid cards are competitively priced for a set number of minutes, and call charges made via Inmarsat mini-M from different service providers are affordable for ships' crews.
Demand for Inmarsat satellite communication applications reached an all-time high last year, and in response, from October 29, 2001, Inmarsat kept its Customer Services Center open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to dispense service and advice to its customers.
In October 2001, Inmarsat Ltd. announced its new service, mini-C, a low-powered and compact communications solution which aims to meet increased demand by small vessels, particularly fishing fleets and yachts, for basic messaging, tracking and security communications.
Mini-C is an evolution of the existing Inmarsat C technology, (which was introduced in 1991), combining a transceiver and antenna in one light compact unit. It facilitates e-mail, position reporting and polling, fax, telex short-code addressing and mobile-to-mobile messaging, using significantly less power, for where the power supply is limited. This makes mini-C a portable and inexpensive solution, and its low power consumption offers the possibility of using a solar-fed battery power source where required.
Inmarsat mini-C will enable maritime two-way messaging, monitoring and tracking applications, non-SOLAS emergency alerting, reception of weather charts and electronic chart correction. In the merchant sector, it can also deliver commercial information for shipping and transport companies, fishing and merchant fleet data applications. It can also be installed as supplementary terminals for crew communications, to complement existing communications services onboard.
Inmarsat mini-C was developed in conjunction with Inmarsat C manufacturers and was first taken up by Danish hardware manufacturer Thrane & Thrane.
"This is a real example of Inmarsat working in close conjunction with partners to respond to market and customer needs," says Michael Butler, managing director of Inmarsat Ltd. "We have developed and adapted an existing service for the end users who told us they needed a more portable and less power-intensive communications solution.
"Mini-C complements the existing Inmarsat C and D+ offerings while being different from them - for example, Inmarsat D+ is specifically geared to support SCADA, remote monitoring, telematics and asset management applications."
Existing Inmarsat C service is designed for full Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) GMDSS service, but this will not be available via Inmarsat mini-C. However, there will be two slightly different models of the mini-C service: a more compact version offering conventional messaging available now and an advanced model incorporating a non-SOLAS emergency alerting facility, which will become available in early 2002.
Ruth Ling contributes
to a variety of global telecommunications, business and consumer publications, and has worked for the BBC, the International Herald Tribune, U.K. national newspapers and magazines, and the British Chamber of Commerce in Brazil.