Operational and commercial communications

Updated 11 Oct 2019

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When radio was first introduced to ships in the early 20th century, its use was purely for commercial and not safety communications. In a reversal of this situation, satellite communications were first introduced with a safety role that has now expanded into the commercial and other spheres.

When Inmarsat C stations were first fitted to ships as part of GMDSS, it did not take ship operators long to realise the potential for using them for routine communications as a more reliable service than radiotelephony. The fact that Inmarsat C e-mail was transmitted on a ‘store and forward basis’ was not considered an obstacle as most commercial traffic between ship and shore was not particularly time critical.

In common with many other industries, shipping is now a hungry consumer of data with some operators prepared to treat ships at sea as an extension of their shore network transmitting all manner of information and data in each direction. As well as routine messages connected with the ship’s employment or maintenance requirements addressed to personnel, many of the newest vessels afloat also transmit data directly from navigation equipment and machinery systems to shore control centres either at the operator’s offices or to OEMs where machinery performance can be expertly assessed.

When maritime broadband was first discussed, some of the promising possibilities that were expounded at the time attracted interest but were found to be not practical given the then state of the marine communications available. Many of those ideas are now becoming a reality. Among the benefits now becoming normal has been a rapid increase in e-commerce, tele-medicine and remote service monitoring of equipment.

When first proposed, these services could work on land but limited bandwidth at sea was an obstacle that would need to be overcome. For some operators, VSAT would provide an answer at a relatively lower cost if enough use could be made of the capacity subscribed to. For those that could not justify VSAT on capacity grounds, there would need to be a wait for broadband services to be developed and made widely available at a reasonable price – something which is really only now beginning to happen.

As available bandwidth for the maritime sector increases, there is no shortage of proposals as to new ways that ships can benefit from communications and connectivity.

The term ‘Big Data’ is now regularly used in connection with shipping and while some are sceptical as to what benefits the concept can bring, others are sure that it will revolutionise the industry.

The term is somewhat ambiguous and has different meanings for different people. Proponents say big data will make shipping more transparent and efficient but sceptics think transparency has already gone too far and is impacting on commercial confidentiality, although they may be more inclined to accept that a better understanding of machinery performance can be useful.

Not all uses are necessarily associated with the operation of the vessel or intended for crew use but rather with cargo monitoring. The use of RFIDs (radio frequency identification devices) for tracking containers have been tried on numerous occasions over the last decade but, while quite common in shore-based transport, have not really taken off for sea transport.

Crew communications and welfare

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 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 crew members to use their own phones but with a different pre-paid SIM card fitted. In this way, crew can take advantage of special-rates calls between similarly-equipped phones even when the users may be on different vessels.

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.

Crew communication statistics

A survey 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, showed 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 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 wi-fi 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, second only to improved pay. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63%) agreed they would consider moving to a shipping company that offered better onboard connectivity. Of the industry leaders surveyed, more than one in 10 (14%) admitted they do not provide their employees with any access to the internet. 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.

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.

Another more recent survey was carried out in 2018 by Futurenautics in association with KVH and Intelsat. This survey is the latest in a series going back to 2012. Key findings of the 2018 survey show some similarities with the Nautilus International Report. According to the report, 61% of seafarers have access to crew communications services ‘most of the time’ or ‘always’ but the rest (650,000 seafarers, the report says) “still struggle to stay connected whilst at sea”, including “below 2%” of the total never having access to crew communications. That works out at about 32,000 seafarers.

The Futurenautics report also found:

  • 92% of seafarers believe that there has been an improvement in provision/access to crew communications since the introduction of the MLC.
  • Although improved since the last survey, the general cargo and bulk sectors remain those with the least crew communications provision.
  • Internet access across all sectors has increased by 32% since the 2015 survey with 75% of seafarers now having some form of access whilst at sea. In absolute terms the number of seafarers that can now use the Internet at sea has increased by 520,000 and those that can access it free by over 200,000.
  • For over half of crew, the most common place from which they can access communication services is their cabin. This was equally true for ratings as for officers. Only in the bulk and general cargo sectors is the bridge still the most common place for accessing services.
  • Despite the growth in access, there is no evidence of corresponding growth in usage. In fact, the average numbers using services on a daily basis has fallen by 3%.
  • There has been a fall of 21% in the number of seafarers quoting cost as the factor that most limits their use of crew communications.
  • 53% of seafarers believed that crew communications had led to a decline in social interaction on board.
  • 55% of seafarers believed that crew communications had affected safety on board ship but 95% believed the effect was positive.
  • 47% of seafarers said that they had sailed on a vessel that had been the target of a cyber-attack.
  • Only 15% of seafarers had received any form of cyber security training. The majority of training currently provided to seafarers is by crewing and manning agencies before the seafarer leaves on his/her next contract.
  • Only 33% of seafarers said the company they last worked for had a policy to regularly change passwords on board.
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