Should ship crew have free access to communications?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

13 July 2016

Access for crew to communications is by no means universal; take up has been high in some sectors especially in the offshore and among higher quality operators. Probably more than half of the vessels sailing 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. One unexpected negative aspect of allowing crew access to communication and the Internet in particular came to light recently 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. Crew calling on the ships that have adopted it usually involves the operator providing a telephone or a computer terminal for email 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 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, while seafarers whose families lack a home telephone or computer will have no need of the service. 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 emails. 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 email 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 at least two 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. For ship operators to allow crewmembers access to communications and to recover the cost either by selling them pre-paid cards or deductions from wages is one thing and leaves them in a break even 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.