VSAT is a 2 way satellite connection that allows high speed data connections ranging from 56Kbit to 4Mbit per second. It connects a remote earth station such as a commercial shipping vessel to a shore network such as the Internet.
That’s a summary of what VSAT is but in reality the subject is much more complicated.
VSAT is a way of communicating with your fleet typically for fixed a monthly fee you get an always on connection to the Internet for data such as web and email, with cheap voice calls thrown into the deal. Traditionally commercial vessels have used services from Inmarsat or Irdium that charge the customer for what is used, which is fine if you limit your voice conversations and what you send over email.
However there is growing demand for more than just email at sea, the modern ship operator has a need to be in constant communication with the vessel and business applications installed in the shore office are one of the driving forces behind the uptake in VSAT, the other is crew welfare. With VSAT installed you can allow your ships staff to browse the web to access social networking sites such as facebook and even online banking, add to this the ability to make cheap (sometimes free) calls back home, VSAT can become an attractive proposition.
Due to the high hardware and airtime costs, VSAT until recently has been available only to large passenger vessels and luxury leisure craft. This is no longer true, the technology behind VSAT has improved over recent years, and lots of VSAT operators have emerged offering various solutions for the commercial shipping sector. There are hundreds of different VSAT offerings on the market today with more being brought to market all the time. Most recent are Inmarsat’s plans to get a slice of the VSAT revolution by its acquisition of SevSat and the launch of their own VSAT network of satellites planed. So where do you start looking for a VSAT solution? Well that depends on a few deciding factors.
Where does the vessel operate? If your vessel operates within a particular area a VSAT solution could work out less than you might think. You could opt for a KU-Band service that typically only works within certain areas and the dish size can be much smaller in size this means the cost is lower. If you require more global coverage you really have to look at C-Band systems which consist of a 2.7M monster sized dome. A nice compromise is the mini-VSAT service from KVH which uses a network of KU-Band satellites with a much smaller dish to get near global coverage without the monster dome.
Once you have selected your chosen supplier, agreed rates and got the hardware installed, what next? Some VSAT customers have made the mistake of connecting the VSAT system into the vessel network without considering other issues like Anti-virus protection, now you have an internet connection on the vessel you are now open to virus infections like any other PC. HR issues like content filtering, how do you control access to the Internet, the crew are happy to have facebook but only when they are not working. Bandwidth control, without it if someone leaves a big movie downloading it will affect business applications such as email and spoil the experience for others. Don’t forget VSAT speeds are still much slower than shore based Internet connections and there will always be the delay in sending data into space and back! These are real issues that require planning from the outset.
Don’t let all this put you off the idea of VSAT. Installing VSAT will change the way you communicate with your vessels and increase crew moral and can even reduce your airtime bills, if implemented correctly. You just need to do a little research and testing to make sure you select the correct VSAT solution for your needs and plan beyond the installation.