MTN Investing Millions on Hybrid Broadband for Cruise Ships

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PARIS — Maritime communications provider MTN Satellite Communications, in a development that illustrates the exceptional dynamism of this part of the market, has invested tens of millions of dollars to deploy a hybrid satellite-terrestrial broadband network for cruise ships and leisure boats, MTN Chief Executive Errol Olivier said.

The MTN Nexus service, which Olivier said will roll out gradually as Miramar, Fla.-based MTN builds Wi-Fi and other terrestrial-wireless towers at high-demand ports of call, features a network of Ku-band satellite capacity that leans on, but does not rely on, Intelsat’s new Epic satellite service.

MTN had scheduled a formal announcement of Nexus on Nov. 19.

Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat, which unlike most satellite operators has substantial unused Ku-band satellite licenses at slots with ocean coverage, has announced a first Epic satellite, called Epic 29e, which will provide high-speed data links to the Caribbean and the North Atlantic air and maritime routes.

The satellite is scheduled for launch in 2015 and will be followed, Intelsat has said, by an Epic 33e satellite to be ordered in the coming months.

In a Nov. 14 interview, Olivier said MTN had invested “tens of millions of dollars” into Intelsat’s 29e program, which will provide high-speed links to MTN cruise- and leisure-ship customers when they are away from port.

“We made a very significant investment in this because we believe Epic will deliver higher bits-to-hertz and a much better cost per megabit,” said Olivier. “We are not just guaranteeing that we will lease capacity. We needed the beams for us. These are our beams.”

Olivier said MTN and its Nexus service are not wedded to Ku-band. He had little disparaging to say about several commercial Ka-band satellite projects that have targeted MTN’s home market as a key niche. But he said the Ka-band systems are closed and unable to provide seamless coverage with other, competing systems.

A ship cannot move in and out of one system’s coverage to pick up the coverage of another without asking ship owners to spend too much money installing too many antennas on already crowded ships.

MTN Nexus, he said, will be backwards compatible with current satellite on-board gear and is able to use satellite gear built by any of several manufacturers including iDirect, Comtech and Newtec. Customers will never know when they have left one satellite system’s coverage and entered another — something he said the Ka-band providers cannot offer.

MTN already leases capacity on more than two-dozen Ku-band satellites and with them is able to offer customers an unbroken global net of coverage in the maritime areas where it is active.

But MTN Nexus only starts with satellites. Besides what the company calls its High-Throughput Multi Spot-Beam piece, Nexus includes MTN ShipCloud, a shipboard caching platform that will be refreshed through satellite links at night while at sea, and through the terrestrial links while the ships are in port.

Mechanically steered antennas placed on a ship’s bow and stern will provide links to the MTN-installed wireless towers placed at optimal points to provide line-of-sight links with the ship as it comes within range.

Depending on conditions, the high-capacity Wi-Fi networks will be able to take over from the satellite connections 20-30 kilometers from shore, relieving the stress on the satellite system as it confronts the concentration of ships around popular ports. Each of these antennas, Olivier said, can run $40,000 to $50,000.

Olivier acknowledged that for a company MTN’s size — about $150 million in annual revenue — the Nexus decision represents a major commitment. The company is already offering a multichannel, global television service to maritime passengers, and the MTN Nexus project will enhance this offering through programming streamed by Wi-Fi to passengers’ portable devices.

MTN would like their service not to be grouped with the multiple maritime broadband offerings now promoted by operators of very small aperture terminal satellite networks, who Olivier said are too focused on selling satellite bandwidth to craft a service offering that suits the cruise ship industry.