Bandwidth bonanza brewing?

Many mariners are finding that the Internet, specifically the Web, is like electricity – when it’s not around you notice its absence. For voyagers, departure on an extended passage often means a transition from a high-bandwidth connection at home and at the dock to a slow (or no) connection at sea or in foreign waters.

But there is hope for all you Web-addicted voyagers. The trend toward higher-bandwidth capability at sea has been buoyed by two recent developments in satellite communications, suggesting fast Web access may not be far off for the average voyager.

The first development involves increased throughput for an existing satcom service. In February, Inmarsat and its major service provider partners like Telenor, Stratos and France Telecom, doubled the data speed of its Fleet F77 service from 64 kilobits per second (kbps) to 128 kbps. Inmarsat satcom hardware providers, like KVH Industries, Nera and Thrane & Thrane, provide gear compatible with the new data speed. In addition to data, Fleet F77 handles voice email and fax traffic. Telenor, for example, has installed at its Norway earth station the upgraded software and hardware that enables 128 kbps.

“This provides us with Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean east and west coverage,” said Tom Surface, media and public relations director for Telenor Satellite Services in Rockville, Md. Telenor is a part owner of Inmarsat and is Inmarsat’s largest service provider. “We will have global coverage when we upgrade our Santa Paula, California, earth station,” Surface said. This upgrade is due to be completed by October.

While 128 kbps is still on the slow side, compared with home and office networks, it will allow users to access websites – such as the ever popular marine weather pages – while at sea. And it is possible to tweak the system for better bandwidth. KVH, for example, offers something called Velocity acceleration software that can reportedly speed up the process to 500 kbps, depending on levels of network traffic and the data files being sent.

Of course, these Fleet F77 units are not exactly compatible with the 40-foot voyaging sailboat or the average power voyaging yacht. They are too big and unwieldy, and draw too much power. No only that, but checking websites on these units is not cheap; it could cost up to $7 per minute. There are Inmarsat services for smaller vessels, the Fleet F55 and Fleet F33 offerings; however, they don’t support the new 128-kbps speed. Even with these qualifications (and there are a few), this is good news for voyagers, no matter what size boat you own. The trend in marine bandwidth capability is positive. Though not quite an oceangoing Moore’s Law, connectivity speed is increasing steadily, and we expect that to continue.

The other development in bandwidth expansion was a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral on March 11. Riding skyward on an Atlas booster was the first of a new generation of Inmarsat satellites called the Inmarsat-4 class. These I-4 birds (which weigh in at a svelte 6 tons, or about the same as an adult African elephant) have 60 times more power than the previous generation of Inmarsat spacecraft. Most important, these satellites have 20 times more capacity to handle data than the I-3 units. In fact, one I-4 satellite has a greater capacity than all five of Inmarsat’s I-3 generation together. The new spacecraft has one global beam, 19 wide beams and 228 narrower spot beams. What this means for users is new bandwidth capability.

Inmarsat is calling the new service it offers with these more powerful satellites its Broadband Global Area Network, or BGAN. While the latest upgrade to Fleet F77 service increases bandwidth to 128 kbps, the upcoming BGAN will provide 492 kbps downstream and 372 kbps upstream. This level of connectivity is better than some people have in their homes. On a vessel so equipped, the Web would be a readily accessible tool for weather, chart updates, etc.

Cost, as always, will be a factor, as well as the size of the antenna. Hardware providers like Thrane & Thrane and Nera have yet to release details of their planned maritime mobile units. Overall, though, the trend toward ready Web access at sea continues. Whether recreational voyagers will embrace it remains to be seen.

By Ocean Navigator