We live in an age where bandwidth is king. From business services to entertainment, our lives – and yachts – rely more and more on reliable, high-speed data connections, and not just for owners but for crew too. However, an ageing satellite network and relatively high costs of satcomms means captains frequently have to consider restricting who can use what data when onboard. While Intelsat and others are launching new orbital hardware to cater to increased data demands, the advent of fast cellular network data is offering an alternative route.
There have been a number of products that aim to tap into the data packages of mobile phone networks to offer a more cost effective alternative to VSAT when in range of shorebased signals. At METS in 2014 it was the Glomex weBBoat 4G unit that garnered attention, offering a handy, single-slot 4G antenna that was small enough to be mounted on a tender, and there are others, such as Yacht Connect and YachtSurfer, who have jumped on the bandwagon.
However, at METS in 2015 all eyes turned to German company CELLweaver, who demonstrated a new unit offering far greater power and usability. By combining up to four 3G/4G SIM cards, the CELLweaver unit uses a unique method of bandwidth aggregation to create a reliable, secure ultra-high bandwidth connection, backed up by a subscription service to guarantee that reliability and quality.
“Users can expect a realistic average speed of 160 Mbit/s plus in 4G areas, and 40 Mbit/s where there is 3G,” says Wilko Darger, CELLweaver’s head of finance and sales. “Costs are highly competitive compared to VSAT and the technology works up to several miles offshore.” Considering that yachts spend a lot of their time in port, and typically in coastal waters when owners and guests are on board, it makes for an intriguing proposition both for client data streaming and for crew use – both for recreation and for yacht management.
The CELLweaver’s impressive stats make possible all sorts of data hungry applications. “Just think of all the streaming-based entertainment services like Netflix or Kartina, interactive services like Skype or Facetime, and cloud-based services that require not only fast downloads but fast uploads too, like sharing GoPro videos or photos on Instagram,” Darger continues. “The CELLweaver can also speed up many processes ‘behind the scenes’, for example if the crew needs to exchange large files for yacht management purposes.”
The proof, of course, is in the pudding, and in fact more than 70 CELLweaver units have already been installed on high-profile yachts including Pelorus, Dilbar, Radiant, Musashi and Quantum Blue. The real-world results certainly appear to live up to the hype. “I have been putting the system through some tests and it is handling everything I can throw at it with ease,” writes the ETO of a 115m Lürssen. These results include that “full HD streams on Apple TV play with zero buffer time, Jetstream plays faultlessly at its highest bitrate, and Youtube/Vimeo streams load and play instantly. Even when playing in 4K!”
While new satellites and revised price plans may improve offshore services, it is clear that in coastal waters 4G systems such as CELLweaver offer a viable alternative for bandwidth intensive applications. And with 5G crawling ever closer – the latest indications are that it will hit the market around 2020 – the future is bright indeed.