Maritime network connectivity – all at sea?

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Over two thirds (around 70%) of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, mostly the oceans. So, when it comes to thinking about universal coverage for wide area networks (WAN), there are some challenges. Undersea cables make fine point to point connections, but do not provide maritime connectivity on the sea surface in between.

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So it has to be wireless over the waves?

The typical range for Wi-Fi is less than 100 metres outdoors. A cellular base station might reach as far as 25-30 miles, if set up for distance. An anecdotal trip out on almost any sea ferry will show this to be optimistic. Indeed, most mariners, depending on the height of their and other vessel’s antenna will be pleased if their VHF radios can communicate over 20 nautical miles. This will drop significantly if there are obstacles blocking the signal, such as rugged coastlines and cliffs. Wireless connectivity to ships in the water from ground based masts is cost effective and fast, but limited in range.

Satellite connection

OK, space – beam data up and down via satellites. This is a great idea, but also suffers a few challenges. First, despite many advances it is still expensive. Launching satellites is costly, risky and can go very expensively wrong. Data rates are typically expensive and are based on amount of data transmitted or capped in some way. This makes business use something that needs careful attention to budgets and costs.

There will also be latency which is impossible to avoid. Coverage is via satellites in a geo-stationary orbit 22,300 miles up over the equator. The signal goes up from a base station and down to a receiving dish at no more than the speed of light, making latency close to half a second. It will be worse further away from the equator due to the Earth’s curvature and eventually coverage can be lost nearing polar regions. There are satellites criss-crossing the sky to providing communications services for maritime safety, but there are limits and costs for data coverage.

Mobile applications

Despite the challenges, most businesses and consumers are coming to rely on digital connectivity and many will want it over water. So the most trafficked seas, lakes and rivers will need improved data connectivity, and not just for safety and rescue services.

Delivering this cost-effectively and reliably is a challenge as both business and certain consumer users are unlikely to want to dilute their demands just because they are at sea. The operators of vessels and those whose cargo they transmit will need access to applications to manage and monitor their services. They may also want to provide internet access for crew and increasingly to passengers. Some will be willing to pay a higher price for this as a convenience, but connectivity for many maritime applications is either essential or has become a fundamental part of mobile business processes.

This means taking advantage of as much of the available lower cost and short range connectivity as possible – Wi-Fi, WiMax, 3G, 4G – whatever is available nearer to land and then using satellite to fill in the gaps when moving further away.

Maritime SDWAN

To do this effectively smart connectivity, in the routers used to connect ships back into the WAN on land, is essential. They need to be able to bond multiple network types together and offer them as an apparently single connection while intelligently load balancing between them, differentiating between applications and offering appropriate service levels.

There are point products in this area for the owners of yachts looking to combine Wi-Fi and cellular for their own private connectivity. However, adding satellites and more application needs to the mix requires more sophisticated solutions and generally a wide area network that can be managed across multiple boats in a larger customer’s fleet.

This is where SDWAN-based routers designed and ruggedised for transport, such as those offered by Peplink, Cradlepoint and Icomera come into their own. These combine the software defined intelligence required for getting the most cost effective, secure and reliable connectivity in challenging environments, with the ability to manage distributed devices, making them ideal for the rigour of marine requirements.

Connectivity on water is no longer a matter of just being able to react to or make distress signals, but to supply teenagers with social media, workers with access to the office and businesses with big data. The conditions, coastal geography and vast size of the oceans means it will always be challenging and more expensive than on land. The intelligent application of the available networking resources using SDWAN should at least make this more achievable and manageable for those needing to dip more than a toe into the water.

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