Getting the most out of your VSAT and 4G internet on board
Last updated: 13/11/2019
There was a time when being at sea meant you were totally disconnected from the online world. Thankfully those dark days are a thing of the past, with satellite internet/VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) - among other bearers such as 4G - allowing us to check emails, scroll through social media, stream content and browse the World Wide Web wherever we are in the world.
It’s great. We can get online pretty much whenever we want. However, despite its brilliance in keeping us connected, satellite internet and 4G can prove tough to manage – and become unnecessarily costly.
If you own a yacht and have guests/crew that want to use your satellite internet this is a particularly pertinent problem, because if you aren’t aware of exactly who has access and what they are using it for, things can quickly spiral out of control.
It means it’s important to be clued up on what’s what when it comes to satellite internet and 4G, and the simple things you can do to prevent soaring bills. We spoke to David Savage, chairman and founder of Excelerate Technology Group, to assist us in compiling an expert ‘all you need to know’ guide.
Why use VSAT satellite internet on a superyacht?
First things first, it helps to know how VSAT satellite internet works and what the advantages to using it are.
Delivering broadband via satellite is a relatively straightforward process: The freely moving satellite antenna, situated in the satellite domes on top of your vessel, transmits data to a satellite in the sky. The satellite then sends data back to the antenna to get you connected… and that’s it.
Unlike the three other main ways of accessing the internet at sea, satellite internet can almost always guarantee availability. 4G, Port WiFi and Port Fibre Connection can offer faster speeds at a lower cost, but performance can be patchy and dependent on numerous external factors.
Satellite internet can be more expensive but reliability counts for a lot, and that is why VSAT is still popular for superyachts despite the other burgeoning technologies that are readily available.
[Note: The best way to ensure you have strong connectivity and fast speeds is by building a communications armoury that contains all four of the bearers outlined above. That way you can use the service that best suits what you want to do at a particular time, factoring in your location, proximity to a mobile phone network, etc.]
Choosing a VSAT provider
The fact that there is a choice in VSAT provider can often be overlooked purely because people don’t like to take the time to research which provider offers the best service for their needs, but it’s definitely a task worth doing.
The right provider should be able to tailor a service to your yacht’s individual requirements and offer flexible tariffs that recognise seasonal and demand variances, preventing major headaches in the long run.
The right on-board user interface from the right provider – one that can provide real-time remote support – can make managing your satellite internet infinitely easier and cheaper.
David Savage has this particularly useful advice, “It would be very wise to use a provider that can offer an end-to-end solution of hardware supply, integration and network operation as that then leaves no doubt who has the responsibility for fixing problems should they occur.”
Getting the most from your VSAT system
Simply put, to get the best from your on-board satellite internet, you need to have a basic understanding of the ways in which you can control who uses it (network segregation), and the demands certain applications have in terms of bandwidth usage.
With this knowledge you will be able to make informed decisions about access, priority to certain users and what applications can and cannot be used. This will, hopefully, eliminate the chances of experiencing a congested network and keep your bills down to a manageable level.
There is a direct correlation between bandwidth and performance and cost expectations, so it’s useful to know how much bandwidth each application requires on board.
Emails and voice calling, for example, only require 10 to 30 kilobits per second (kbps), which is minimal. Streaming Netflix, on the other hand, or uploading videos to YouTube, requires an awful lot more – as much as 30 megabits per second (mbps) for Ultra HD.
Put simply, the more bandwidth being used, the greater the demands on the network, so this needs to be considered and allowed for in the tariff.
With this in mind, it’s vital to work out which applications the owner, guests and crew use most, and therefore how much bandwidth is required in total. That way you can make sure you’re able to get on with your online activities regardless of what everyone else may be doing online, and have a rough idea of how much it’s all going to cost.
It’s imperative to keep on top of who has access to your satellite internet, not only for security reasons, but also so you know how many people are potentially trying to get on to the network at any one time.
Liaising with your provider, implement a secure password protection regime. A lot of people neglect this process because having to type out a password to join the network is a hassle, but it should be something that everyone does without hesitation. It means you can prevent uninvited guests from accessing your network and running riot with web browsing you haven’t legislated for.
For even tighter security, it’s worth changing the password on a regular basis. Yes, it’s a nuisance to have to dedicate the time to do such a trivial task, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives in the long run – for peace of mind if nothing else.
In addition, your provider can help you create network access by group, with each requiring its own login password. You can then separate/prioritise users by category (owner, crew, guests, etc.) and rest easy knowing that each person that picks up your yacht’s network will have the relevant password to get online – and even be given the priority you desire.
[Note: There are some advanced technologies that can offer you greater control – Excelerate’s Digital Dashboard Management Interface (DDMI) and RedPort’s Optimizer Crew are just two of the devices that can help in this regard. Excelerate provide their DDMI for free if customers remain with them, but Optimiszer Crew comes at a price.]
It may sound extreme, but banning certain applications or websites can be sensible if you have a heavily populated yacht. This helps to ensure that nobody is able to hog the network by, for example, streaming movies at peak times.
Imposing a ban on streaming sites like Netflix and YouTube at certain times of day, for particular user groups such as crew, is probably the most effective way of ensuring the network will have room for everyone to go about their business.
Given the popularity of both these sites, restricting access should help to free up enough bandwidth for everyone to get online at the same time. This highlights the importance of an easy-to-use interface to control it all so that the network and users can be prioritised in real time.
David Savage has these final words of advice about satellite internet and the ways in which you can create an efficient communications armoury.
He said, “In terms of cost by speed, VSAT is likely to be more expensive [than 4G, Port WiFi and Port Fibre Connection] but not prohibitively in the context of a yacht’s running costs. If connectivity resilience is important or vital then VSAT would always be at least a component in the yacht’s communications armoury along with the other three. Correctly set up it can be the primary bearer when the others are not available or just an extra benefit to compliment the others when they are available.
“Obviously internet speeds will come into play, so on a good day 4G may well be faster than any of the other bearers, but, as a pay-as-you-go service its costs are not as predictable as VSAT, so the key is to try to use different applications on the bearer that offers the best performance at the lowest cost.
“Things can be done to help reduce and manage costs very easily whilst also improving the user experience, but it all starts with knowing what things consume bandwidth and then managing it properly.”