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The future of networking?

Nov 1, 2017

Connectivity is king and voyagers can expect even more in the years to come

One of the possible big trends in networking is the open-source Signal K system. Digital Yacht’s iKommunicate is a Signal K gateway.

One of the possible big trends in networking is the open-source Signal K system. Digital Yacht’s iKommunicate is a Signal K gateway.

Courtesy Digital Yacht

Wireless networks and access to the Internet on board has increased dramatically in the past few years. Now it is becoming rare that a voyaging vessel doesn’t have a local wired or wireless (or both) network on board. One potentially important development is that the types of devices that can be connected will increase via a new open source networking system called Signal K. Another coming change is the prospect of increased areas of coverage for high-speed Internet, possibly including the entire globe if announced satellite Internet plans come to fruition.

In the early days of onboard networking, the types of devices that could be connected to a boat network were limited to a few: performance instruments, positioning receivers (like loran and GPS), autopilots, etc. And those units were usually connected via proprietary networks offered by marine electronics companies. A few years ago, a group of volunteer developers got together and worked out a networking language called Signal K that allows just about any device in the “Internet of things” to participate on a boat network.

Signal K is a free and open source universal marine data exchange format that makes use of the HTML 5 standard. Signal K, according the Signal K Association’s website, “provides a method for sharing information independent of the underlying communications protocol (e.g., NMEA 0183, NMEA 2000, SeaTalk, I2C, 1-Wire, ZigBee, etc.) in a way that is friendly to Wi-Fi, cellphones, tablets and the Internet. Signal K is the next-generation solution for marine data exchange. It not only allows for communication between instruments and sensors on board a single vessel, but also for sharing of data between multiple boats, aids to navigation, bridges and marinas.”

The idea behind Signal K is to make just about any device on the boat or in the surrounding marine environment capable of sharing its data. This networking option is already possible using the NMEA 0183 and NMEA 2000 networking standards (though Signal K is capable of greater speed then the NMEA standards), but in order to use those standards, devices need to be certified by NMEA — a process that involves paying fees for certification. A marina, for example, is unlikely to pay a fee to get certified to put NMEA-networking Wi-Fi transmitters on any of its privately maintained buoys or on its docks. Yet, with Signal K, the process is easier and requires no more than the cost of a Wi-Fi transmitter.

One of the interesting things about Signal K is that it is currently a wide-open field, and there may be great applications of Signal K that no one has yet imagined. One company that has moved forward with offering a Signal K product is Digital Yacht, which offers a device called iKommunicate, a Signal K gateway that converts NMEA 0183 and 2000 data to Signal K HTML 5. According to Nick Heyes of Digital Yacht America, the iKommunicate unit is increasing in popularity. “Signal K started slower than we’d have liked, but it’s a self-funded effort,” Heyes said. “We’ve sold more than 2,000 units and it’s growing all the time.”

As an open-source development project, Signal K requires interest and effort from software writers to move forward. Digital Yacht is trying to help that process along by sponsoring a contest called Code Afloat (codeafloat.com), which is designed to help spur interested mariners and non-mariners to write new Signal K applications. The contest, which runs from July 2017 through October 2017, offers a $2,500 cash prize for the best application and two $500 prizes for the best ideas.

The other possible looming development is wider access to the Internet. While the early days of Wi-Fi on boats were a time when voyagers could find open Wi-Fi connections unsecured by passwords, that era is largely gone, with marinas and waterfront businesses like restaurants securing their Wi-Fi access points. Also, as voyagers have become accustomed to having a wireless network on their boats that is connected to the Internet, they want to have it more frequently. The drawback to relying on Wi-Fi connections is not only the need to purchase access, but also the limited range of Wi-Fi signals. Even when coastal voyaging, there may be few or no Wi-Fi signals available.

One alternative is to use a longer-range cellular phone connection. As long as you have a contract with a cellular service, you can make use of its cell signals as you proceed along the coast (provided there is cell coverage, of course). For example, marine networking company The Wirie makes a high-gain cellular antenna unit called The Wirie Pro that can increase cellphone coverage range. As Liesbet Collaert, one of The Wirie’s founders, put it in an email, “We definitely think that the Internet development will be more cellular-focused, hence our creation of the Wirie Pro. Wi-Fi has become a spotty option over the years, and while it remains the cheapest way to get online and a nice option when it is available, people are now so used to getting online easily and reliably with their phone that the cell data connections are becoming the way to go. Also, people don’t mind spending money on more expensive cellular plans, since they ‘demand’ immediate and constant Internet.”

Even cellphone coverage has its drawbacks, however. What about when you’re offshore or in a remote anchorage? How do you feed the need for the Internet then? Satellites are the way to fill that gap, but satellite options are either too low bandwidth, like Iridium and Globalstar, or too expensive for many voyagers to use, like Inmarsat.

Iridium is changing the formula for its own service by launching new, more capable satellites called Iridium NEXT. The NEXT spacecraft will have higher data speeds compared to the original generation of Iridium satellites.

Another solution to at-sea Internet via satellite may come from planned satellite Internet efforts that include announcements from Google, SpaceX and a company called OneWeb. The OneWeb proposal, for example, calls for providing global coverage with a massive constellation of 648 satellites in low Earth orbit (see image on previous page). All of these firms are looking toward potential users in parts of the world without an extensive wired Internet network. These satellites would still have access to Earth stations much farther out at sea than cellular coverage. OneWeb is even touting its satellite constellation as being capable of cross-communication like Iridium satellites, meaning they could provide coverage even when the satellites have no Earth station in view. Voyagers could make use of this satellite coverage to get Internet access at sea.

More Internet connectivity seems to be the trend. “Everything depends on cheaper Internet access on boats,” Digital Yacht’s Heyes said. “We’ll see the next thing within five years: global Internet access.”

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