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 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.
The provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 makes no specific mention of provision of communication facilities for crews in the mandatory part of the convention text but there is reference in the voluntary 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 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.
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.