Internet connections are obligatory in the enterprise, and linking global offices with a wide area network (WAN) isn't rocket science either. But what about linking offices that are bobbing around like corks in the middle of the ocean?

For Hong Kong-based vessel management firm Wallem Group it's just another day at sea. The company provides various management services - from crew management and fleet scheduling to engine maintenance and technical management - for about 100 vessels.

Communications cost a lot
Each Wallem vessel is like a branch office, but linking these vessels to the enterprise network is pricey. Voice communication costs could be as much as US$5 per minute and on average, each vessel spends $2,500 to $3,500 per month solely on communication.
"If you add up those costs over 100 vessels, it's expensive," said Patrick Slesinger, Wallem's director and CIO. "Not to mention that when the vessel is idle, we still have to pay a minimum fee."

Technology advancement has eased the pain. Decreased hardware costs, and the increasing popularity of satellite networks, have created a new way to get cheaper data communication among vessels.

A satellite network from UK based Inmarsat supplies an Internet Protocol pipeline which delivers data like any terrestrial IP network, according to Piers Cunningham, Inmarsat's senior maritime business development manager (on a side note, Inmarsat itself is a big user of wireless LAN communications in its land-based offices in London - see the growing pains of a Wi-fi pioneer).

When Wallem first connected to a satellite messaging network, in 1993, it cost $13 per minute with a speed of only 9.6 kbit/s, Slesinger recalled. With Inmarsat's latest satellite network service, Fleet77, vessels can be connected at 64 kbit/s for only $3.65, he noted. Fleet77 is an industry-specific service network solely for marine users.

Choose the cheapest of two
In addition to a lower connection fee, the network service can cut costs further by choosing the cheaper of two complementary networks - MPDS (mobile packet data service) and the mobile integrated service digital network (ISDN). A product called Data Replicator, from Rydex, chooses the cheapest one in any given situation; it analyses all incoming messages and makes recommendations on the best and cheapest way to receive them.

MPDS allows always-on connectivity and fully integrated IP functionality, but users are charged for data transferred. Meanwhile, mobile ISDN is charged according to online time, explained Cunningham.

Mobile ISDN delivers a constant data stream and is best used for sending or receiving large files and images, voice communications, fax and videoconferencing. But for smaller data transmissions, like e-mail and Web browsing, MPDS is more suitable.

"We are convincing our clients to purchase this system," said Slesinger. "It will provide a static, dynamic and near real-time connectivity to the vessel." The network equipment is owned by the vessel owners, but Wallem supports and manages the network and pays the connection fee. Thus making effective use of the two communication methods is key to keeping the cost down.

Wallem recently completed a six-week trial of Fleet77 on an oil tanker, testing and optimising various applications. One of these is a tool called total procurement system (TPS). Designed to run on Fleet77, TPS delivers small messages via MPDS to answer the vessel's procurement needs. When vessels send a list of requests - for example, engineering components or spare parts — the application will match that need with the nearest port from the cheapest supplier, reducing delivery time and overall price for the procurement process.

Accurate reports are needed
Using its knowledge in IT and vessel management, Wallem has also turned its IT department into a revenue generating centre. The company recently joined with its outsourced development operation in the Philippines to make software for sale to ship owners — dubbed Packet Counter, the software provides ship-owners with an itemised report on network usage, similar to a mobile phone bill.

The report can segment charges by user groups or applications. According to Slesinger, Packet Counter can also track usage of bandwidth for new applications, allowing user to evaluate bandwidth requirements.

Marine users constantly seek useful applications of IT from vendors, but Slesinger says that vendors haven't properly answered the call. Thus some marine users are forced to use terrestrial applications - even though these may be unsuitable and costly.

"We can't put in an application just because it's there," said Slesinger. "It needs to be justified through benefit and cost efficiency."