Broadband at sea will (soon) be possible thanks to 5G

Be it satellites in low orbit, drones or stratospheric balloons, the telecom sector is working on innovation and cooperation to build a seamless 5G connectivity experience from land to sea.

Satellite constellations in Low Earth Orbit will be able to deliver download and upload speeds of up to 1 Gb/s.

What provides connectivity at sea? Today, geostationary satellites still provide the vast majority of bandwidth, limited to a few hundred kb/s, which is equivalent to the first ADSL boxes. That’s enough to cover today’s main uses such as voice-based operations.

However, communication at sea is gathering pace, with increasing quantities of advanced data and services, from collecting technical information from vessel-mounted machines to providing VOD or remote virtual reality, etc.

So there’s no 4G at sea?

In addition, licences used by operators in France stop at the coastline. Thus the sea is not covered by mobile networks, although in practice, connectivity can commonly be found up to a few kilometres from the coast. If Orange provides connectivity to 400 ships, it is thanks to its Satellite Business Unit. Having distributed satellite offers for over 40 years, Orange provides coverage for 100% of maritime routes and 90% of the Earth’s surface. Once installed on ship, its Maritime Connect box constantly seeks the best match between the means of connectivity, pricing and the service required aboard.

A sea change with the advent of 5G

Now a major development in satellite systems is promising a completely different outlook in terms of offshore connectivity. Many players in the sector are investing in the launching of satellite constellations into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Located between 500 km and 2000 km above the Earth’s surface, these satellites fly in coordinated groups and, unlike their predecessors, they are moveable. Within a decade, they will be able to deliver download and upload speeds of up to 1 Gb/s and perhaps even higher. Offshore broadband is close to becoming reality.

This space-related development will be accompanied by a significant reduction in terrestrial reception methods: satellite antennas on ships will become increasingly horizontal, and will become significantly lighter, slipping under the 100 kg threshold, possibly even less. A ship’s fuel consumption is highly dependent on the weight of its equipment, thus these new antennas will lead to a marked reduction in energy usage. State-of-the-art antennas, combined with the new LEO constellations, will provide further opportunities for users deprived of connectivity due to weight or cost considerations, from fishing and coastal traffic to pleasure boats, regattas, and so on.

National and international cooperation

Previously, the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), the global organisation of telecom operators and suppliers, had never thought about connectivity services at sea. For the first time in fifty years, the consortium approached satellite managers to include them in the ongoing discussions on standardising offshore 5G. We can thus imagine continuity between 5G services on land and connectivity at sea.

Several partnerships are being established. Orange has just entered a partnership with the Brittany Atlantic Maritime Cluster (Pôle Mer Bretagne Atlantique). A joint innovation platform is set to open, to share ideas and projects and to include other players, such as antenna or software suppliers.

Other avenues open to 5G at sea

5G at sea could be covered from the stratosphere, using balloons or drones with embedded radio equipment. 20 km above ground, and thus above air traffic, this would make it possible to provide for the increase in traffic between the French mainland and Corsica, for instance.

At a much lower altitude of 800m, a network of tethered balloons could be used, connected by cables to vessels forming a sea-based network. By creating their own network, rescue boats equipped with this technology could optimise their rescue operations.

Lastly, from Earth, the antennas of the terrestrial mobile network could be focused just off the coastline, an area known as the near sea. These data navigation corridors would be useful for automated maritime patrols or for fisheries control: costly helicopters would be replaced by drones sending back images in real time.

These diverse technological avenues, explored as part of the 3GPP with the contribution of all players, sketch the outlook for a connected future for sailors, travellers and pleasure boaters alike.

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