Going to sea…wirelessly

We tend to look at the telecom market from a land-based perspective, but the maritime communications industry is huge. In fact, we’ve seen estimates that this industry is worth as much as $4 billion annually. Merchant ships, fishing vessels, barges and even pleasure crafts often venture out of cell-phone range, and need a means of communicating back to the dry side of the world.

The predominant means of communicating with maritime vessels have been point-to-point radio systems like HF SSB marine radios and satellite systems like INMARSAT. Both of these solutions have some significant disadvantages, and neither has been optimized for data communications. INMARSAT, for example, provides data throughputs in the range of only 64K bit/sec at very high per-minute prices.

In the past, these limited data communications have not been a huge deal for many commercial and pleasure craft, but that is changing as data requirements become more sophisticated. For example, merchant freighters may wish to be in constant data communications with their owners regarding cargo status, fuel status, weather, schedule, etc. Tug and salvage operators may use data communications to check in on the latest disabled craft needing service. Government ships may also take advantage of more advanced data communications for homeland security operations.

One interesting maritime data solution being offered by Wheat Communications is its TeleSea product. Wheat has been around for more than 15 years, mainly providing communications solutions for the Department of Defense and other government entities. TeleSea is an outgrowth of some of Wheat’s homeland security work, and is actually two products: TeleSea Wi-Fi service and TeleSea Satellite service.

TeleSea Wi-Fi provides marina-based Wi-Fi services, TeleSea Basic; and coastal at-sea services, TeleSea Gold.

The satellite service called TeleSea Blue can provide communications and IP connectivity for deep-sea, ocean-going vessels.

The satellite service is significant in that it provides higher bandwidths and flat-rate unlimited pricing, but our interest was particularly piqued by the Wi-Fi services.

TeleSea is not the first to “unwire” marinas. We’ve seen several hot-spot operators providing similar services, mainly to pleasure-boat operators who want to bring laptops aboard. TeleSea’s Gold service, however, is the first we’ve seen that provides service throughout large sections of coastline.  This even has implications for on shore use along these routes.

Using what they describe as the largest geographic Wi-Fi network in the world, TeleSea can offer Wi-Fi service up to 30 miles from land. TeleSea takes advantage of their own specialized antenna systems and the lack of obstacles on the water to provide up to 11M bit/sec unlimited usage for a flat monthly fee. TeleSea is already live with individual customers and several casino-boat fleets.

Beyond the 30-mile limit, TeleSea can offer fleets of vessels a combined satellite/Wi-Fi service, with a single satellite-equipped vessel acting as the “hub” for the remaining Wi-Fi equipped vessels.

Moving forward, Wheat plans to add voice-over-IP services to this portfolio, allowing TeleSea customers to bypass more expensive traditional at-sea voice services. The company is also looking to use some of its maritime technology and in more traditional, land-based wireless communications markets.

With functionality and pricing options more appealing than traditional satellite connectivity, this gives new meaning to being wirelessly connected everywhere. With services like this coming along, workaholics on their yachts will no longer be able to escape the workplace.

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