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Issue 01 Journal
Inform | Communicate | Respond
Issue 01 - Spring 2013

Inmarsat logoThe Backbone of Global Maritime Safety Communications

Emergency Comms talks to Peter Blackhurst with Inmarsat

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Photo ©: Ebbert Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Photo ©: Ebbert Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Peter Blackhurst is the Head of Safety Services, Maritime at Inmarsat. Peter comes from a solid maritime background. He is responsible for Inmarsat’s provision of GMDSS and its public service commitment and development of new technologies. Peter has built a lifetime seagoing career. He has served in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Safmarine as a radio officer, and before his appointment to his current position, he was Senior Technical Standards Manager and policy lead for Communications and Navigational equipment at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. He was also Chief Radio Surveyor for the UK administration.

Inmarsat is a global leader in maritime safety communications. For more than three decades mariners the world over have trusted Inmarsat for reliable emergency and distress communications, when it matters most.

Q: Inmarsat is well known as an industry leader in Maritime Safety Comms. In fact, you’re quite literally the backbone of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Tell me a little more about that, and about some of your other maritime safety solutions.
A: The ‘backbone’ is a very good way to describe it, bearing in mind that Inmarsat was originally formed to provide those safety communications for shipping over thirty years ago. It’s been a process of development from the time when we were an intergovernmental organisation before we later became a private commercial enterprise, and then a company traded on the London Stock Exchange. Throughout that time there have been various constraints and regulations but we’ve always operated under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which has developed a set of rules that dictate how we should provide maritime safety services. We have continually sought to meet, or exceed, the IMO’s standard, because we recognise that ultimately one lost call could mean someone’s life.

Q: Would you say there were challenges, or advantages to becoming a private enterprise? Or maybe a little of both?
A: Even when we moved into the private sector, our maritime safety services continued to be delivered under the ultimate governance of IMO with the International Mobile Satellite Organisation (IMSO) as our regulator and interface to the IMO. We still report to them and they oversee our operations, ensuring we continue to comply with the regulations. We also seek their advice when we’re looking to introduce new services, as we are at the moment, as we move from the older, legacy services of Inmarsat B, Fleet 77 and Inmarsat C – a mandatory carriage requirement for all deep sea-going ships – to new high capacity services on FleetBroadband. We’re in the early stages of introducing these new services but have already launched a voice distress service – a red button to get straight through to the Rescue Coordination Centre – and later this year or early next, we’ll have the commercial launch of what we call a Maritime Safety Data Service. This will emulate the services provided by Inmarsat C, although clearly with our current 3G network on the I-4 satellites we’ll be able to offer much more. And of course, both those new services will be subject to IMO approval.

Q: Of course all of your solutions meet the standards of the IMO, but when lives are on the line, just meeting standards is not enough. Tell me about Inmarsat’s commitment to exceeding those standards in an arena where compromise is not an option.
A: We have very stringent operations, which include backup scenarios so that if we should have a satellite failure, we can use one of our other satellites to fill the gap and maintain the service. That, of course, is very much based on the operation of the existing constellation. The on-board technology of some of the older satellites, some of which are coming up to 20 years of service, isn’t as high as the I-4s, which have a lot more built-in redundancy and resolution. They’re a lot more powerful but also a lot more reliable. That’s something that will continue to improve, but nevertheless we are very aware that we meet a quality of service of 99.9%. And we do exceed that – the last figures I saw were 99.98%, so we’re getting down to two decimal points and we match that year-on-year. Emails are sent out automatically via the network as soon as someone puts up a distress priority call, and they get forwarded through to our Network Operations Centre and Satellite Control Centre (SCC), so they have full visibility of what’s happening and can maintain the high quality connection throughout the emergency.

Q: While Inmarsat has built a global reputation for uncompromising maritime safety solutions, you are also responding to the Comm needs of mariners in other ways, tell me a little bit about that.
A: We’re investigating all the different ways of managing the delivery of safety services, as well as the greater requirements that the seafarer wants beyond simply distress. For example, we’ve seen developments in chart updates in recent years as ships move away from paper charts and adopt digital navigation systems. Being able to access real-time weather reports and download electronic charts on-demand allows captains to plan the most fuel-efficient route by avoiding any bad weather that can add to journey time. This means there’s going to be a growing need for additional satellite communications to deliver these e-navigation services both quickly and inexpensively.

Q: Without revealing anything that could be considered proprietary of course, what do you think is next in Maritime Safety Communications in general, and specifically for Inmarsat as regards meeting those future needs?
A: We remain very open with our plans for the future when it comes to safety. Although we’re still in the early stages of introducing new services on FleetBroadband, we have shared that information with the maritime fraternity through the IMO, so they know what’s coming. Clearly what happens in the background – how we operate our network, how we route the calls etc. – is a different matter. Ultimately, Inmarsat is seen as the pipeline between the ship that’s in trouble and the shore, and what’s important is that, when a distress call is made, it gets through, and we work tirelessly to make sure that happens.

So for the future, we just see it getting better.

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