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How Fast Can We Go?

For as long I can remember the norm has been VSAT at sea, 3G or other shore connection at berth. While this was quite adequate just a few short years ago, the rise of HD streaming platforms as apposed to conventional onboard media libraries, the shift to cloud based apps, and the Internet of Things have all now pushed us to improve on or move beyond this model. Contracted bandwidth steadily increased… and then along came 4G. I remember the first time I implemented 4G onto a vessel back in 2011, using the 1O1O wireless network in Hong Kong, the owner was so blown away with the speed, that he made an impromptu decision to remain at the Gold Coast Marina instead of heading back to his private berth in Taiwan, the allure of faster internet access had changed the plans of this billionaire in an instant.

Everyone longs for faster access, and as ETOs we are the ones they look to for providing it!

With a number of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) in orbit now and the ones on schedule to be launched, VSAT bandwidth is not really an issue for those of us with the budget for it. But why is it with a 40Mbps downlink that my web page still loads so slowly? Oh right, forgot about that latency thing. In a recent interview with Via Satellite, OmniAccess CEO Bertrand Hartman had this to say, “I think that model [of buying capacity from fixed Geostationary (GEO) satellites] compared to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites, for instance, could change. If you are pushing 50 to 100 Mbps, it is no longer the speed that is governing things; it is latency that is becoming the driving factor in the user experience. I think, increasingly, as the bandwidth per user numbers become more mainstream, LEO is going to become more and more interesting in proposals. We are certainly looking at those things. We think the next five years will be different than the last five years,”, I really hope I don’t have to wait 5 years Mr Hartman, but I agree with the rest of your statement.

Ahhh the latency… sigh!

Just how much better off will we be with LEO as opposed to GEO? Let me try to put things into perspective for you, LEO ranges between 160-2000km from sea level, typically 400km is the sweet spot, whereas GEO satellites are 35,786km from sea level, that’s around 90 times the distance of a LEO Satellite at 400km, and we all know the correlation between distance and packet delivery time (latency). By my calculations that would make the latency of LEO satellites 10% that of traditional GEO satellite latency, which is usually between 500-700ms. But according to people much smarter than me, my calculations are wrong, LEO speeds will be even greater than your terrestrial fibre links, 1.5 times faster according to LeoSat, apparently light travels faster in free air than it does in fibre optic cables… huh, who knew? With companies like LeoSat and OneWeb making steady strides, along with advancements in phased array technology, I think we are in for drastic changes in the satellite communications game. LeoSat is well on its way to being the first commercially available ultra high-speed low latency satellite provider with the launch of their constellation of 108 interconnected LEO satellites. Not to mention we will now have real worldwide coverage, as LEOs have polar orbits.

In the meantime, while we wait for the LEO revolution, we look at alternate ways to solve our latency, bandwidth, and cost problems. Over the past 7 or 8 years or so, since the first LTE networks were launched, I have seen many yachts attempt to address the aforementioned issues by supplementing their connection to the www with 4G access, some went a step further and moved to 4G as their primary source demoting their VSATs to backup. Exponentially faster and at the same time exponentially cheaper, it was a win-win situation, or so it seemed. Of course in yachting, the popular destinations are mostly in the remotest of areas, where network coverage was very limited or non-existent, and even when within coverage you would need to maintain close proximity to shore to have a usable signal. This was enough to curb the implementation of 4G for guest use, for most of us, in the beginning. But the technology has improved, with repeaters and amplifiers allowing us to utilise 4G up to 50km from shore, enough for many of us who typically do not venture further than a few kms from shore anyway.

Companies like Cellweaver and Cobham Wireless have begun offering complete solutions with amplifiers/repeaters and aggregation, allowing vessels to pool the bandwidth of multiple modems using multiple providers for massive throughput. I’ve personally reached over 100Mbps on a Cellweaver device with 4 SIMs from 3 different providers. Lately, though, all the buzz is about 5G, which promises speeds between 1 to 10 Gbps, and ultra low latency of less than 1ms. With infrastructure already being rolled out in several countries across the world, we are already in the testing phase, with some companies planning to launch their 5G network as early as 2018.

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