Satellite links oceangoing offices

Internet connections are obligatory in an enterprise environment, and linking global offices with a wide area network (WAN) isn't rocket science either. But what about linking office environments bobbing around like corks in the middle of the ocean?

For Hong Kong-based vessel management firm Wallem Group it's just another day at sea. The company provides various management services -- from crew management and fleet scheduling to engine maintenance and technical management -- for about 100 vessels.

Each Wallem vessel is like a branch office, but linking these vessels to the enterprise network is pricey. Voice communication costs could be as much as US$5 per minute and on average, each vessel spends US$2,500 to US$3,500 per month solely on communication.

"If you add up those costs over 100 vessels, it's expensive," said Patrick Slesinger, Wallem's director and CIO. "Not to mention that when the vessel is idle, we still have to pay a minimum fee."

Technology advancement has eased the pain. Decreased hardware costs and increasing popularity of satellite networks have created a new avenue to enable data communication among vessels at a much cheaper price.

A satellite network from U.K.-based Inmarsat supplies an Internet Protocol pipeline which delivers data like any terrestrial IP network, according to Piers Cunningham, senior business development manager, maritime at Inmarsat.

When Wallem first connected to a satellite messaging network, in 1993, it cost US$13 per minute with a speed of only 9.6K bps (bits per second), Slesinger recalled. With Inmarsat's latest satellite network service -- Fleet77 -- vessels can be connected at 64K bps for only US$3.65, he noted. Fleet77 is an industry-specific service network solely for marine users.

In addition to a lower connection fee, the network service supports two complementary communication methods with a third-party product selecting the cheaper option on a situation-specific basis. The two choices are MPDS (mobile packet data service) and the mobile integrated service digital network (ISDN). Data Replicator, provided by third-party vendor Rydex. The application analyzes all incoming messages and makes recommendations on the best and cheapest way to receive them.

MPDS allows always-on connectivity and fully integrated IP functionality, but users are charged for data transferredÂ-mobile ISDN is charged according to online time, explained Cunningham.

He noted mobile ISDN delivers a constant data stream and is best used for sending or receiving large files and images, voice communications, fax and videoconferencing. But for smaller data transmissions, like e-mail and Web browsing, MPDS is more suitable.

"We are convincing our clients to purchase this system," said Slesinger. "It will provide a static, dynamic and near real-time connectivity to the vessel." The network equipment is owned by the vessel owners, but Wallem supports and manages the network and pays the connection fee. Thus making effective use of the two communication methods is key to keeping the cost down.

Wallem recently completed a six-week trial of Fleet77 on an oil tanker and tested various applications, aiming to optimize its operations.

One of them is a tool called total procurement system (TPS). Designed to run on Fleet77, TPS delivers small messages via MPDS to answer the vessel's procurement needs. When vessels send a list of requests- for example, engineering components or spare parts- the application will match that need with the nearest port from the cheapest supplier, reducing delivery time and overall price for the procurement process.

Leveraging the advantage of its knowledge in IT and vessel management, Wallem has also turned its IT department into a revenue generating center. The company recently partnered with its outsourced development operation in the Philippines to develop software for sale to ship owners -dubbed Packet Counter, the software provides ship-owners with an itemized report on the network usage similar to a mobile phone bill.

The report could segment charges by user groups or applications. According to Slesinger, Packet Counter can also track usage of bandwidth for new applications, allowing user to evaluate bandwidth requirements.

Marine users constantly seek useful applications of IT from vendors, but Slesinger says that vendors haven't properly answered the call. Thus some marine users are forced to use terrestrial applications -- regardless of suitability or cost-of-operation.

"We can't put in an application just because it's there," said Slesinger. "It needs to be justified through benefit and cost efficiency."

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