NTT DoCoMo Buys in to GSM Provider for Ships

Taking its global expansion to places few of its customers venture, Japan's NTT DoCoMo has acquired an 11.5 percent stake in Blue Ocean Wireless, a cell-phone network carrier that provides coverage on merchant ships.

NTT DoCoMo will pay US$10 million for the stake in the Dublin-based venture, the two companies said on Thursday.

Blue Ocean Wireless provides a system for installation on ships that consists of a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) base station that covers all or part of a ship. The base station connects through the ship's existing Inmarsat satellite communications system to a terrestrial gateway that routes calls and data to and from the fixed telecommunications network.

It works anywhere there is satellite coverage, but to avoid interference an on-board satellite positioning system shuts the service off when ships come with 12 nautical miles of the coast line of any country.

Cell-phone users on board ships do not typically roam on the network but take a subscription with Blue Ocean Wireless and use one of its SIM cards. Calls cost either US$0.99 or $1.12 per minute depending on the time of day. SMS text messages cost US$0.50. Ship owners pay US$299 per month for the complete installation.

Earlier this year the first in-bound roaming service was launched on the network with Smart Communications, the cellular carrier of Philippines Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) in which NTT DoCoMo holds a stake. Around 40 percent of the estimated 1.2 million merchant seamen in the world are Filipino and the service allows them to use their Smart subscription on the network.

Smart owns 30 percent share of Blue Ocean Wireless. Other investors include Irish private equity firm Claret Capital, Irish remote communications company Altobridge, and Bank of Scotland (Ireland).

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