Social isolation is a huge problem for mariners, especially those traversing the open seas. The voyage between China and the U.S. West Coast, for example, can take upwards of 18 days. That’s a long time to be out of touch with family, friends, and any entertainment.
The recent Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI) published by the Mission to Seafarers reports that in first quarter 2023, seafarers’ happiness levels declined from 7.69 to 7.1 out of 10 compared to fourth quarter 2022. Satisfaction levels fell in nine out of 10 surveyed areas, one of which was social isolation.
The Mission to Seafarers notes that connectivity is always highlighted as a key issue. “Good, cost-effective Wi-Fi access is vital to seafarers and has a huge positive impact on their mental health,” it says. “Our respondents also made it clear that connectivity assists rather than impedes social cohesion on board, as seafarers are happier if they are able to contact loved ones.”
Zeymarine, the Turkish ship agency and maritime transport company, recently wrote that for seafarers, internet access is not a luxury, but a necessity. “Crew members have duties that are sometimes thorny and hazardous. To maintain their mental health, an internet connection can be helpful,” Zeymarine writes in a December 8, 2022, blog headlined, “Internet Connections on Merchant Ships.”
Limited availability and the inability to use devices such as cell phones and the internet while at sea is the problem. Although technology is improving, access to telecommunications infrastructure is not the same as that ashore. The U.S. Coast Guard points out on its Navigation Center information page that maritime telecommunications systems must be internationally interoperable. But to be interoperable, technology must be affordable, acceptable, and available to most ships and maritime countries.
Satellite phones have been around for a while and have been a boon for mariners. For many, they are the only and most effective source of communication on a ship.
When a crew member makes a call using a satellite phone, the signal goes directly to the service provider’s satellite. The call is processed by the satellite and is then sent to earth through a gateway. The gateway directs the call through the regular landline or the local cell phone service providers.
Most satellite networks available today are for work/professional communications—not personal use. But satellite connections are the most common and reliable way to connect to the internet on ships.
Although not as dependable as land connections, satellite internet connections enable voice calling, messaging, HD television reception, and web browsing. Its cost can be high depending on the ship’s size, intended internet usage and the speed of the connection.
“That is why most merchant ships have some specific places that you can go to get online,” Zeymarine says.
Internet speed is one of the components of installation charges. Yet speed is still an ongoing problem. “You cannot expect a similar connection that you can get through a DSL,” according to the Turkish ship agency.
Satcom service provider Remote Satellite Systems emphasizes the importance of selecting the right equipment. “For example, a customer who requires uninterrupted connections for long conversations will likely be pointed toward a phone that works with satellite networks placed in geosynchronous orbits,” it says. However, these satellites don’t cover all places on the globe.
Satellites in low-earth orbit can reach anywhere on earth “But phones that work on these networks are susceptible to dropped connections as calls are ‘handed off’ from one satellite to another, much like cellular networks on land,” it says.
Bright Hub Engineering points out in its blog “How do Satellite Phones Work on Ships” that if a person from the ship wants to make a call to another satellite phone, the signal is sent to the satellite and is relayed to the receiver phone without the help of any gateway. There is no intermediator in a satellite-to-satellite phone.
Another issue regarding satellite phones is that they have long antennas. “The antennas should face the satellite whenever the call is being made,” says Bright Hub Engineering. “And as satellite phones do not use any land infrastructure, call charges are very high compared to a cell phone.” To say nothing of the large and heavy handsets, according to Bright Hub Engineering’s blog.
UK satcom service provider Inmarsat offers two-way communications via end-to-end maritime satellite communications. It is working on its next generation high-speed connectivity that uses various technological solutions, including software, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Its marine satellite solutions are making it possible for mariners to stay in touch with family and friends, and enable them to watch movies, TV, and sporting events without impacting a ship’s critical communications system.
Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress, a high-speed mission-critical satellite solution, provides high-speed connectivity for its Fleet Hotspot, a flexible, easy-to-manage Wi-Fi hotspot installed on the vessel. Fleet Hotspot is completely independent of the vessel’s bandwidth and offers unlimited backup and 99.9 percent availability. Mariners can log in from their laptops, tablets, or mobile phones from anywhere on the vessel at any time.
Mariners manage their own access to the system by using a self-service portal to purchase packages with flexible payment options.
U.S. containership operator Sealift Inc. signed up five of its six vessels to Fleet Hotspot and is one of its leading users. “Fast and reliable onboard connectivity is crucial to a happy and healthy crew,” says Charles Worledge, Fleet and IT Management, Sealift Inc.
“Sealift benefits from a more motivated workforce without having to worry about network interference or unexpected costs related to bandwidth consumption,” adds Logan Murray, Sales Manager, Inmarsat Maritime.
Another option is to use one’s own wireless devices for internet accessibility. However, those devices only connect when ships are near ports and the network is available.
“Dial-up is also a way to connect to the internet,” says Zeymarine. “However, due to its reliance on the phone’s signal reception, it is not too effective.”
Voice and data communications are available between ships and shore. According to Scripps Institute of Oceanography, these change from time to time as improved technologies and more cost-effective service plans arise.
Scripps provides broadband internet communications on its research vessels. These are used by shipboard scientists who send and receive email using their land-based account.
Several independent satellite and cellular systems are used, with the primary system being Scripps HiSeasNet, a satellite communications network that is designed specifically to provide continuous internet connectivity for oceanographic research worldwide.
Scripps adds, however, that satellite communications systems are subject to failure at sea. “Communications cannot occur, for instance, when the antenna’s view of the satellite is blocked by the ship’s superstructure, which happens on some ship headings,” it writes on its website, which focuses on ship-to-shore communications.
Staying in touch is less problematic for seafarers plying coastlines on ships with dome systems that operate via shore infrastructure, such as those developed and offered by BATS Wireless, the Indianapolis, In.-based company which develops systems that enable mariners to communicate over any telecom carrier any place in the world.
BATS offers two systems – LTE (or Long-Term Evolution, i.e., 4G or 5G) that connects to a shipping line’s onshore base station; and FAST LTE for those ships that do not have specific infrastructure and want to be able to connect anywhere in the world.
The LTE dome systems are a single LTE antenna mounted on a positioning unit for electromechanical aiming to the closest or designated tower 40 to 50 kilometers out. The FAST LTE is a more advanced design with electronic aiming.
“Its connectivity is 60-70 kilometers out,” says Phillip Cramer, BATS EVP of Sales/Marketing. “It gives mariners the ability to connect using any carrier around the globe.”
But, Cramer adds, if transiting the open seas, satellite systems are, however, the only option. “The vast majority of ships stay within 50 kilometers of shore in the shipping channels.”