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It’s a decade since the iPhone changed the world, and if you want to see the future of maritime connectivity take a look at your phone, explains Toni Linden of KNL Networks.

Today it’s common for the maritime industry to say that we’re about 10 years behind when it comes to big advances in technology, and it’s hard to disagree with it.

When you look at autonomous cars, smart factories, or even how you send an email, the shipping industry clearly needs to catch up compared to our land-based counterparts.

There are many reasons you could argue why the shipping industry has been so slow, but biggest reason among them is the lack of internet connectivity at sea that makes efficient new technology possible.

We have a lot of work to do, but the good news is that if the shipping industry is 10 years behind where it should be, then the industry is going to advance very quickly.

This year marks one decade since the iPhone launched for the first time, and it’s already a cliché to point out how quickly the world has changed since its launch. Should we expect any less from the maritime industry? The fundamentals for a revolution are all here.

When thinking about maritime connectivity, smartphones also make a good analogy.

It’s not mentioned in any advertisements, but your typical modern smartphone has around 40 radio technologies built into it. The easy ones to name are 2G, 3G, 4G, WiFi, Bluetooth and NFC, but it gets more complicated as the WiFi and the “G” technologies broken down into multiple sub-bands. With all these radio technologies working in parallel, communication gets smarter and more efficient.

If one connection becomes too unreliable or if the device decides one is too expensive to use, there are other radio technologies built in to keep you connected. What we need is to advance the maritime industry is more options than just a single technology; we need real hybrid communications.

For the past 20 years satellite has been the workhorse of maritime connectivity, and for good reason. With reasonable data rates bouncing off satellites in the middle of the ocean, it was a true game-changer and opened up the doors for crew welfare and maritime digitalization applications. But there are limits to satellite.

The basic example are the satellite availability maps, which have trouble covering the higher latitudes. But the greater problem is that each satellite serves many users through a single access point. It means that hundreds, if not thousands of ships must share bandwidth, just like WiFi at a conference.

The satellite industry is expected to invest $13 to $18 billion in new communication satellites over the next 3-5 years to improve this issue, but the demand for data will increase faster than supply. Think of it like your home computer’s storage. Today we gave hundreds of gigabytes more storage in our home computers compared to a few years ago, but we keep wanting to save pictures and movies – each year more than ever – and we constantly run out of space.

There will soon be an explosion of data coming out of the shipping industry, and the basic rule of business is that if you have more demand than capacity, prices will go up. This isn’t a win for the shipping companies that are hoping to improve efficiency and save money using their data!

So how do we fix this? At KNL Networks we strongly believe that terrestrial communications will be the real catalyst for maritime digitalization, adding to satellite connectivity. We’ve put years of research into shortwave radio for long-distance communication and combined it with cellular service for nearshore use.

The way our solution works is that each of our KNL radios form a mesh network: the KNL radios at sea encrypt data and are connected to the internet through other KNL radios nearshore that has cellular data connectivity. Simply put, ships at sea are supported by ships at port with cellular. It’s simple, secure, reliable, and global.

Our nearshore cellular speeds beat satellite speeds, but KNL’s HF speeds in blue water are slower than modern broadband satellite. Despite that, it’s fast enough for email and IoT data, and we’re very optimistic about what our technology holds for the future. The benefit of terrestrial data communication is that it’s much quicker and easier to push the technology forward – think about the 2G speeds you had on your first mobile phone and compare that to the blazing-fast LTE you have today.

Rather than a total 1:1 replacement for satellite, hybrid communications will be the industry standard going forward, both for security and reliability reasons, and because they can fill unique use-cases.

In practice, there are a couple ways to deploy hybrid communications. Some shipping companies simply lower their satellite packages and optimize all their communications based on demand, using KNL broadband connectivity nearshore and at port as their primary channel, and at blue sea combine the bandwidths of KNL shortwave radio and satellite.

But for other shipping firms with clear digitalization goals and smart hardware, another strategy is to split up communications based on priority.

Out at sea, satellite is used for crew welfare and operational bridge communications. And then below deck, smart hardware and IoT devices use KNL as a more cost-effective and secure channel.

Looking forward, we see this second use-case taking off by more and more shipping companies, and we’re building our model around it to make it even easier to answer the “who’s going to pay for the data?” question.

And for this, we have some exciting news coming up. We’ve designed a straightforward and easy-to-understand system for IoT data starting at less than €10 a month, meaning that vendors can access their data whenever they need it, and can build their data access requirements right into their pricing.

We’re looking forward to launching it by the end of this year and simplifying this question that comes up with every new integration that requires data, which soon, will be almost all of them.

As much as the industry is excited about autonomous shipping, IoT at Sea, and smart hardware, the requirement for data will increase faster than satellite can provide, and we need hybrid communications to power the industry.

Just like the iPhone, Maritime Digitalization is coming at us quickly, but it’s a great opportunity for our industry to become more efficient through smarter operations. We just need to use all the bandwidth available to the shipping industry.

 

Images courtesy © Getty Images

This article appeared in the Q4 2017 issue of Futurenautics.

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