Fleet Xpress: defining a new era of connectivity at sea

At Inmarsat’s headquarters in London, the great and good of the maritime press gathered for the launch of Fleet Xpress, an attempt to redefine connectivity at sea.


Connectivity at sea

The press conference, held at the heart of Inmarsat's operations centre on 5 May, consisted of extremely thorough presentations; at times the level of technical detail was quite overwhelming. But, in simple terms, Fleet Xpress - said Ronald Spithout, president Inmarsat Maritime - is all about changing the way seafarers access the internet.

It is based on the company's new Global Xpress (GX) satellite constellation and combines the high data speeds of what is known as Ka-band with Inmarsat's FleetBroadband L-band service. To date there are 15 plans, or packages, of data rates that interested parties can choose from. Things have come a long way since the invention of radio.

"It will provide the guaranteed high-speed connectivity that is essential to support the safest and most efficient vessel operations, anywhere in the world," continued Spithout. "While, in parallel, it will match the personal connectivity needs of even the most demanding modern seafarer, delivering services previously available only on shore."

Connectivity: 'ripe for change'

Connectivity is, said Peter Broadhurst, VP Inmarsat Maritime, an area that is ripe for development and expansion.

This plays into the broader narrative within the industry on big data and how now, more than ever, reliable connectivity is increasingly being seen as crucial. The questions have been posed over many years; how do we provide shore-standard internet access when thousands of miles from the coast? Do seafarers and captains really need it?

That really is what this is all about. Forget the technicalities of whether it is Ka-band or L-band, or the highly complex way in which the satellites operate. First and foremost, and from a human point of view, it is connecting vessels and seafarers to the outside world, if you will. There is a growing desire and need for greater connectivity out at sea. People expect it to be the norm, not the exception, and that goes for leisure and fishing vessels, superyachts and offshore rigs, as well as container ships and tankers, and so on.

"There is a growing desire and need for greater connectivity out at sea."

When speaking to Maritime CEO, second officer Nikhil Salunke said: "In a world of modern gadgets and technology, we seafarers are still deprived of certain things ... In the era of Skype and Facebook, it is very difficult to live in isolation."

Of course entertainment services such as Netflix are part of the equation, but it is the use of social media and Skype for family reasons that is important here, and was reinforced by Spithout and Broadhurst on more than one occasion. Crew welfare is paramount, said the latter. It might be a call to a loved one or simply checking the news; in effect it can help seafarers feel more human and combat the loneliness that can afflict them.

A Maritime CEO survey found that 87% said 'yes' when presented with the question: should all ships have proper connectivity for all seafarers. For owners and managers, the picture is slightly more complicated when you factor in the associated costs. A second poll, again by Maritime CEO, of 150 owners and managers shows that global coverage, 27%, and price, 25%, are the highest ranked considerations when choosing satellite communications for their fleets.

Broadhurst also outlined, however, how Fleet Xpress gives captains, or entire fleets, the ability to pay and get the bandwidth when they need it. So, for example, it might be that at 10am every Monday more bandwidth is needed for a video call, but the rest of the day only a minimal level of connectivity is necessary. This 'on-demand' style of operation can make the whole process more efficient, he added.

A final point, and one that has been debated on these pages recently, is cyber security. Spithout admitted that greater connectivity inevitably leads to greater cyber threats. Cyber security has to come first, therefore. The industry is beginning to wake up to this and an afterthought it cannot be.

Call it what you like. The long and short of it is that connectivity at sea is changing.