Connectivity is essential to any yacht. But with new technologies in the news and on the horizon, what could this mean for yachts? The most newsworthy players in the fight for fast and reliable Wi-Fi these days are OneWeb, Starlink, and Kuiper, says Roger Horner, Group Managing Director, e3 Systems. But with so many options in the news, it helps to understand how it all works.
A low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite is much closer to the Earth than the geostationary (GEO) satellites, which remain fixed in the same position. LEOs don’t stay in a fixed position relative to the Earth’s surface — you need a network of these satellites for global connectivity. Superyachts must track the always-in-orbit satellites across the sky, resulting in a continual loop of searching and locking onto one satellite to the next. Now in play are satellite constellations — a huge group of artificial satellites working together as a system; if at least one satellite in the constellation is visible anywhere on Earth, you can get connected globally for global coverage.
For the best analogy of what a boat really needs, Horner compares it to a smartphone, which seamlessly switches between Wi-Fi and the cellular provider when you leave the house.
Take Elon Musk’s Starlink service, for example. “At the moment, he’s launched upwards of 2,500 satellites of these new Starlink satellites,” says Horner, adding that Starlink is still only in the beta test stage using the v1 satellites, with a plan to eventually launch 42,000 v2 satellites to complete the constellation. Musk is offering outrageous speeds at low costs compared to what’s currently available. Until June 30, the Starlink constellation wasn’t FCC-approved to allow mobility on the ground and at sea, which made it tough for moving vessels. SpaceX now provides its Starlink satellite Internet service to cars, trucks, boats, and airplanes in motion in the U.S. Starlink then launched their dedicated Maritime system in early July and we have evaluated this now with speeds of 250Mbps down 18 Mbps up on moving yachts and it works well.
Musk has named a usage price for his beta satellite RV service: $135/month and the Maritime service: $5,000/month. The fee for RV includes portability but not mobility but it does include mobility for Maritime. According to e3, who has heard that the price to produce his antennas for the beta test is $2,500, Musk is selling the RV antennas for $500 and the Maritime antennas for $10,000. The current RV antenna is not a maritime antenna and won’t last long in the harsh environment at sea; further, it’s probably not designed to track moving satellites and handle the movement of the yacht simultaneously.
Close behind is OneWeb, owned by multiple entities. The OneWeb LEO constellation requires just 650 satellites and already has about 300 launched. LEO constellations provide much faster data connectivity for boats and use less power as the satellites are closer to the Earth. “If a yacht wants to use conventional dome antennas, a minimum of two, ideally three will be required to track LEO satellites. Alternatively, they just need one flat panel antenna,” Horner says. OneWeb will likely be ready for global use by mid-2023. Both OneWeb and Starlink offer the same speeds: 200 Mbps down and 40 Mbps up; both can use flat panels.
The Kymeta GEO flat panel has been around for a number of years, is working well, remains proven in the maritime environment, and is the only commercially available flat panel that’s now LEO-compatible using the OneWeb constellation. “When the LEO satellites are up, that’s when it comes into its own,” says Horner.
Amazon is coming behind with Project Kuiper; however, they aren’t as vertically integrated as Starlink and will need to rely on external rocket launchers. They’re also facing a regulation deadline to have launched 1,500-plus satellites by July 2026. Amazon already has FCC approval to do so; e3’s theory for how Amazon may execute its plan? They’ll give it away because they don’t need to charge for it since it will help sell products through Amazon for everybody, everywhere. “Give the antenna and the service away, such that people can use all the Amazon services.”
When the boat sails offshore and the 4G signal dies there, it can switch automatically onto the satellite connection to keep them connected all the time.
For the best analogy of what a boat really needs, Horner compares it to a smartphone, which seamlessly switches between Wi-Fi and the cellular provider when you leave the house. “And it happens simply and automatically,” making it a hybrid solution, he says. e3’s own hybrid solution allows boats to seamlessly switch between 4G, 5G, and satellite, whether conventional GEO satellite or LEO using Starlink or OneWeb. When the boat sails offshore and the 4G signal dies there, it can switch automatically onto the satellite connection to keep them connected all the time.
Horner warns against companies that claim only one service is necessary for a vessel’s data-connectivity needs. You can pay “an absolute fortune on a monthly basis for a satellite connection at a high speed.” Maybe you’ve got a 12-month contract but are spending eight months a year in port, so you do not need that satellite connection for those eight months — you can simply switch to 4G or 5G when in port.