A battle of the bands? Thuraya’s Kyle Hurst makes the case for L-band

Thuraya MarineComms Market Development Director Kyle Hurst took part in the recent GVF Maritime Europe forum in London

Standing up at a VSAT Forum, on a program heavy with presentations about High Throughput Satellite (HTS) services to make the case for L-band might sound highly contrarian, but to Thuraya’s Kyle Hurst it is a story that still needs telling.

Setting out to present a different angle on the conversation – sometimes the argument – that tends to take place around frequency and maritime bandwidth demand, Hurst's intention was not to take away from the potential of HTS but to offer some alternate perspectives.

“I'm not here to try and disprove anything about HTS throughput, but I want to give more of a bottom up view in this debate, which is to focus on the people on the ground and what they actually want,” he said.

For more than 30 years, L-band has been the maritime industry’s communications backbone. That is in part because other options were limited but also Hurst contended, L-band has flourished for very positive reasons.

“L-band is highly reliable, it’s a very tolerant technology with less complexity in the antennas and below decks equipment than VSAT which demands much greater pointing accuracy at the satellite to make the connection. Making more complex technologies as robust as L-band is possible but it means you inherit cost, which doesn’t make you popular in maritime,” he argued.

Throughput is both L-band’s advantage and its Achilles heel. The Thuraya maritime broadband service can achieve 444kbps to a 30cm antenna making it simple, cost effective and easy to install. However L-band throughput capacity is pretty much capped at half a megabit and begins to look slow when compared to the multi-megabits per second promised by HTS.

But Hurst said his experience talking to customers was that though they are interested in new technologies, there is both a natural caution on costs and a realization that HTS has everything to prove.

“I believe that most demand right now is still well within the capability of L-band. I was talking to a shipping company executive recently who is using about 200 megabytes per month on a vessel.  We talked about HTS and his response was that he wanted to keep the costs the same but send higher quality photos, bigger spreadsheets and maybe some database dumps. There are still a lot of people out there who have very conservative demands.”

Such requirements, as well as burgeoning machine to machine services can easily be handled by L-band. Even with the management of more systems moving from the vessel to the shore, optimization of the signal, better compression and caching means most requirements could be handled with existing bandwidth, he said.

Hurst noted a similar pattern discernible in crew calling, often talked of as the main driver to VSAT and HTS demand. Ask a crew member if they want free broadband and the answer will be always be yes. Ask whether they are prepared to pay and they immediately ask how much.

“My question is how much of this is demand and how much is hype?  I think the main point about the real price of L-band is what people are willing to pay. There is an awful lot of marketing out there but I think the main concern from the maritime community is what is it going to cost not just when it launches, but in the future because you can't just invest in this kind of technology for a year.”

Within a few years, a market that supported just a handful of operators will see new ones join the fray and existing ones release new services, supply at a time when the industry is still emerging from downturn. The risk also exists that some new entrants could leave the market if they struggle to make headway, stranding users with unsupported technology.

Hurst thinks that creates uncertainty in the minds of shipowners about what HTS is capable of and the value it can deliver. The experience of previous broadband offerings is that early adopters move will lead the charge with the rest prepared to wait for the technology to bed in.

“I think it's really up to the greater part of the market to decide based on real demand from merchant vessels, what is the best method of different types of communication,” he adds. “For day to day business we are well within L-band’s functional limits. For the crew, perhaps we need something different. The most important factor here is that the industry should be asked what it wants, rather than being told what it needs.”

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