Communications and entertainment for ship crew and passengers

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 10 May 2017


VSAT and its attractions to cruise and ferry operators have parallels with the very earliest marine radio communications in that the target user base for both are wealthy passengers.

In the early days, the radio equipment and the operators were not even provided by the shipowner but by commercial organisations and since most VSAT equipment is leased there are similarities here also. The difference, of course, is that today, the end users usually provide their own personal devices to connect to the satellite.

As radio communication spread to other ship types, the importance of communications for the commercial purposes of shipowners and also for safety, took precedence. That has been the case for most of the last 100 years but recently the purpose and intent of marine communications has changed beyond recognition.

The surge in satellite communication equipment sales that resulted from the introduction of GMDSS was enough to convince service providers that there was a rich vein to be tapped with growth coming from outside the traditional traffic that passes between ship and shore. The one that has attracted the most attention is crew communications. It has been promoted as both an essential element of crew welfare and a means of retaining staff in a time of shortage of skilled seafarers.

Access for the crew to communications is by no means universal; take up has been high in some sectors especially in the offshore sector and among higher quality operators. At the other end of the scale, probably more than half of the vessels sailing the world’s oceans have no provision whatsoever and the lowest quality operators may feel they have good reason not to provide crews with a means to report poor conditions onboard.

Crew calling on the ships that have adopted it usually involves the operator providing a telephone or a computer terminal for e-mail connectivity that crew can use during non-working periods. Some operators may provide a free-of-charge service, but more commonly crew members are charged for their calls, either through a prepaid card or by deduction from wages.

On smaller vessels and those with little or no more communications equipment than is mandatory, providing crew calling can create difficulty. With perhaps only one telephone on board for crew calling, disputes may arise over usage. It used to be thought that seafarers whose families lack a home telephone or computer will have no need of the service but this is no longer the case as smart phones and tablets are now commonplace everywhere including some of the poorest places on the globe. Where access to communications is limited ratings generally fare worse than officers.

A survey carried out in 2012 suggested that free access to communications is granted to seafarers on only one in five ships and it is mostly restricted to text-only e-mails. Some interesting facts emerged from the survey. Apparently seafarers over 35 years of age prefer voice communications while younger generations made greater use of social media.

On average, the seafarers surveyed were spending about $140 per month on communications – equal to about 40% of their wages and high by any standards. Not all of the money was paid out for onboard access to communications. Most seafarers today have their own cell phones or tablet devices that can be used to access public networks in ports and coastal waters and it was here that the most money was spent.

There is a possibility that more crew will be given access to communications as the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 filter through the industry. Although there is no specific mention of provision in the mandatory part of the convention text, there is reference in the guidelines.

Guideline B3.1.11 Section 4 (j) lists facilities that should be given at no cost to the seafarer where practicable. Item J covers ‘reasonable access to ship-to-shore telephone communications, and e-mail and internet facilities, where available, with any charges for the use of these services being reasonable in amount’. Exactly how this guideline will be interpreted and put in to operation by flag states and operators remains to be seen but it does at least open up the door to wider access for seafarers in future.

Communication service providers have been rolling out new products to take advantage of increased access by crews. These new services have one thing in common – doing away with the dedicated terminal in favour of letting crew use their own GSM phones or as it is sometimes described – ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD). Depending on the ship type there are various ways of achieving this.

One is an extension of the systems now commonly found on passenger ships equipped with VSAT where the ship is assigned its own unique roaming identification and passengers and crew can use their own personal mobile phones, with the cost charged to their normal billing system.

A variation on this allows the crew members to use their own phones but with a different pre-paid SIM card fitted. With the different cards crew can take advantage of special rates calls between similarly equipped phones even when the users may be on a different vessel.

Another is by means of picocells connected to the ship’s communication system. A picocell is a small base station installed in accommodation areas of the ship that extends mobile coverage. Connected to a remote gateway, it will convert a mobile call into a narrowband IP signal for transmission over the satellite network used by the vessel. The picocells allow mobile phones fitted with appropriate pre-paid SIM cards to access the communications be they VSAT or L-Band. If a VSAT connection is available, it would be possible to assign roaming rights that allow crew to use their own phones.

Wherever pre-paid SIMs are used, a crew member will need to use a mobile phone that has been unlocked. When in port and away from the ship, the user can still use the phone once the pre-paid SIM has been replaced with one supplied by a local or international service provider – although the number will obviously be different.

A more recent survey than the one mentioned above was carried out in 2017 by the seafarers trade union Nautilus International which represents more than 22,000 maritime professionals in the UK, Netherlands and Switzerland. The findings in the Connectivity at Sea report show that although 88% of seafarers now have some sort of internet access, only 6% can video-call families. By comparison statistics show 91% of UK homes and 85% of European homes have broadband access, with the United Nations recently suggesting that access to the internet should be a basic right, rather than a luxury.

The (link: text: Nautilus survey) interviewed nearly 2,000 seafarers and shipping industry leaders for the research. Other key finding were that although most seafarers have internet access, they are on limited wifi speeds at a high cost. In addition, only 57% of crew have personal email access and just one third have social media access at sea (34%).

More than 80% of members considered communications one of the most important collective bargaining issues, however, second only to improved pay. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63%) agreed they would consider moving to a shipping company which offers better onboard connectivity. Of the industry leaders surveyed, one in ten admitted they do not provide their employees with any access to the internet (14%). The two biggest reasons given were fears crews would access illegal or adult content (83%) and the potentially high installation costs (83%). The survey also found that nearly two-thirds of respondents (58%) were concerned the provision would result in a distraction to work.

It has to be said that the move towards giving crew access to communications does appear to have some negative aspects. One such aspect of allowing crew access to the Internet in particular came to light when a shipowner was threatened with prosecution because a crew member had downloaded an illegal copy of a film using the ship’s satellite connections. Such inappropriate activity could have repercussions if it becomes commonplace especially as in some countries laws exist that could see the ship’s communications license revoked making it impossible to operate.

There have been more serious incidents that have come about as a consequence of crew being distracted by unpleasant news from home that they would not have been able to receive had there not been modern communications on board. Another consequence is that there appears to be a growing lack of interaction between crewmembers with talk of “closed cabin doors”, and a breakdown in much of the social cohesion onboard. Some are saying that this could have a bad effect on crew morale and could lead to crew being unable to function as a team when necessary.

For ship operators to allow crewmembers access to communications and to recover the cost either by selling pre-paid cards or deductions from wages is one thing and leaves them in a breakeven situation. More benefits are to be had from fast connections on passenger vessels such as cruise ships and ferries. Here an extra revenue stream can be tapped by allowing passengers to use their own mobile telephones onboard.

Both passengers and crew can benefit from streamed entertainment services of which there are an increasing number. Services such as Inmarsat’s Fleet Media allow for latest movies, international films, sports and TV shows to be downloaded on vessels anywhere in the world. This gives crew members access to hundreds of hours of on-demand content that can be watched on a laptop, computer or an iOS or Android smart device via Wi-Fi or physical network connection. The Fleet Media service is being powered initially by XpressLink and eventually via Fleet Xpress as take-up expands.

Inmarsat has also signed a reciprocal agreement with KVH that will see both companies distributing each other’s services and products. KVH will be offering Inmarsat’s Fleet One and FleetBroadband services, and Inmarsat becomes a non-exclusive distributor for KVH’s Videotel Basic Training Package and NEWSlink newspapers within the leisure and non-passenger merchant vessel segments. The NEWSlink newspapers covering more than 70 titles and in 17 languages will be offered as enhancements to Inmarsat’s Fleet Media service.

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