by Stuart Castell – Director of Maritime & Energy
When Starlink is discussed within the maritime satellite service industry it is often portrayed as some novel toy or cheap alternative to the “real thing” such as VSAT. Terms such as best effort, unguaranteed, and NGSO (Non Geostationary Satellites) are often bandied about. NGSO is interesting as it covers all LEO networks but is usually aimed particularly at Starlink and this seems like an attempt to paint Starlink as outside of the norm and to be approached with caution.
In the maritime telecoms space, there has always been a wide range of systems in use and on offer, new technology comes in that is better than previous services and so will ultimately replace the old. There is always pushback, protection of customer bases, and cries of derision regarding the new, however, this is always a case of trying to delay the inevitable while companies and industries rethink, restructure and retool to meet the new technology and the customers’ new expectations.
One thing I think everyone can agree on from supplier to customer is the Starlink service has shaken up the maritime satellite communications world and has made people think differently, regardless of whether they currently sell or use the system.
When a new system comes out there is usually intense marketing, use cases, promotions, and of course how well it works in remote locations. Starlink was different, they largely just got on with it in a very novel way firstly aimed at the residential market which was extremely successful. When they ventured into more remote and difficult territory they didn’t take the usual route of an adventurer posting from a remote location or a standard list of industries that could benefit from the network, instead, they supplied around 17,000 terminals into a warzone, without much fanfare, and with great success, there is no denying the ability of the equipment and service. Although done relatively quietly and without the wider support of the satellite service industry the speed of take up of the Starlink service has been far beyond any other satellite user technology, ever.
So, to maritime services and performance. As we know ships at sea can be in some of the most remote destinations in the world and always on the move. Providing reliable and efficient communications services is difficult to achieve for a whole host of reasons but two important ones are the lack of coverage and the ability of some satellite networks to provide adequate data speeds. Due to the nature of its constellations, LEO networks bring wider coverage including the Polar regions and those hard-to-reach and traditionally expensive areas in the Pacific, Indian, and Southern oceans. LEO coverage is also achieved within a single network rather than a VSAT network which is often a patchwork of satellite coverage areas knitted together by satellite service providers.
Starlink is a LEO network with currently over 3500 satellites orbiting the earth providing high-speed data coverage globally, in all areas, wherever you want to go. As more and more satellites are launched, on a weekly basis, the network and the speeds and performance will continue to increase.
Comparing Starlink Speeds and Performance
It’s important to understand that Starlink customers do not buy speed because everyone gets the speed, if a customer buys a Maritime mobility antenna and data package they get the ability to have priority access data of up to 350Mbps downlink, 40Mbps uplink with latency of 30-40ms. Truly ground-breaking, phenomenal speeds and low latency beyond anything anyone else has been able to provide before and at a price point that was unheard of.
What customers do buy is data, due to the amazing speeds on offer, globally, customers can choose data packages measured in Terabytes instead of Megabytes or low Gigabytes.
The speeds and performance allow customers to access the internet and applications in a way they have never been able to do at sea before, this is true broadband speeds at sea, office-like, home-like connectivity.
There is often much talk about CIR and guarantees but Starlink provides a service so advanced with so many added advantages over its competitors it is an argument that is losing relevance. Why pay so much extra for VSAT CIRs of between 2 and 10Mbps download (watch how expensive it gets if you need a high Upload CIR, and then check you have the right antenna equipment), when you can have the speeds that Starlink provides at the price point offered.
Starlink Maritime Hardware
Also, the hardware plays a big role in the way Starlink has revolutionised the maritime industry. The equipment is small, easy to ship, and easy to install. Of course, it is always recommended to have a professional installation done on any vessel, a good site survey is important for whatever you are installing, and of course good antenna placement and cabling, etc. Starlink makes this so easy, the kit is small (the antenna weighs 7kg), it can be easily shipped at a fraction of the cost of a radome, it can be put on a ship without the need for a crane and the installation is extremely versatile from pole mounts to rail mounts, it can be placed easily and quickly.
The commissioning is also easy, turn it on and request activation from your authorised Starlink service provider and it is done instantly via a portal. No engineers hanging around for hours costing money doing lineups, in fact, some customers have installed themselves at sea and the service was brought online during transit, without a hitch, there are many tales like this.
Finally, the hardware is a fraction of the costs of VSAT radomes and systems, it’s so low cost you can easily choose to have 2 systems on board for around a quarter of the cost of VSAT. If you so wished you could even have a spare on board (because its so small and easy to store) that if you needed to you could replace an antenna yourselves. No more struggling to the port using poor communications with the added hassle of arranging parts to be delivered and an expensive engineer to attend.
Starlink Maritime Contract
The contract is also flexible, no more commitments of 12, 24, 36, or even 60 months, it’s flexible, month by month, turn it on, turn it off. No more managing layup times and extensions to contracts. This approach will benefit so many markets such as yachting, fishing, offshore and many others.
Of course, as well as the huge amount of advantages there are some disadvantages such as managing the data and user activity, data spend, etc. but that is what the satellite service industry is for, providing the services to enable customers to use this technology safely and with confidence.
So, Starlink is here, and here to stay, it provides a great service and pound for pound beats any other system out there, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any other service as a backup but Starlink is here to be your primary communications providing services way beyond what customers have experienced before, globally.
As with all products, the best way to judge Starlink is to hear the voice of the customer. Customers simply love the service from the Fleet Managers to the Captain to the Crew. These are examples of real feedback from Starlink maritime customers:
“The best internet we have ever had”
“everyone is extremely happy”
and to end with a favourite:
“If I was to thank you all for the service in drinks, I would never have enough money to afford the rounds”.