Ship operators balance cost, value of keeping crews plugged in


Crew connectivity for mariners, particularly on bluewater vessels, has emerged as an important issue in the “care and feeding” department. At the same time, the growing demand to integrate all aspects of maritime business electronically is putting a new focus on expanding communication capacity, particularly via the Internet.

It need hardly be noted that until the recent past, most mariners expected to be out of touch with the rest of the world while at sea. Aside from whatever recorded programming they brought with them, the only other distraction might have been what came from a shortwave radio. And, while the bridge might have been able to get in touch with other ships or “home,” for the average mariner, not much had changed from the days of Herman Melville.

“When I first went to sea, you sent letters; they would be two weeks old or more when they arrived, so you would number them because they might arrive out of order,” said Capt. Nathan Gandy, commandant of midshipmen at Maine Maritime Academy.

To go from that to having email at sea was a huge leap, but the bar keeps getting reset. Nowadays, Gandy doesn’t call his daughter — they FaceTime. “Having that kind of access is worth the cost for many of us,” he said.

Maine Maritime Academy’s training ship State of Maine was built in 1990 but has added technology through the years to improve communication for cadets and other crew.

Courtesy Maine Maritime Academy

It’s a new era. Almost every part of the terrestrial world is plugged into a communications backbone that supports landline phones and the Internet as well as mobile and Wi-Fi communications. An entire generation has grown up almost completely connected, and almost everyone else has grown accustomed to plugging in at will. So when mariners have to unplug at sea, it can be disruptive and demoralizing.

The Crewtoo Seafarers Happiness Index, issued last year by United Kingdom-based KVH Media, found an overwhelming desire among mariners to have more or better Internet and Wi-Fi access on board with “decent” speed. Connectivity, or lack thereof, was one of the most persistent complaints and a source of increasing dissatisfaction.

“Those at sea crave connectivity, and there were many who hoped it will become mandatory for the sake of keeping their relationships with family, friends and loved ones who are far away,” noted the authors. The respondents were not simply young, device-oriented people — many were 50 or older and represented various roles from captains to rank and file.

While some might wish for a mandate, currently the incentives to increase connectivity come mostly in the form of recommendations. For instance, the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, as amended, went into force in 2013 and states that consideration should be given to providing a range of recreational and personal well-being facilities on board, including “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.”

Dr. Joan Mileski, head of the Department of Maritime Administration at Texas A&M University, said improving connectivity is also an education issue. That’s because so many learning opportunities are online.

Advances in connectivity allow Capt. Nathan Gandy to FaceTime his daughter while at sea instead of calling her. “Having that kind of access is worth the cost for many of us,” he says.

Courtesy Rosemary Wyman/Maine Maritime Academy

“Seafarers could spend leisure time educating themselves, but they need Internet access,” she said.

Mileski said current rules from the International Maritime Organization specify a need for Internet access, but it only has to be sufficient enough to maintain up-to-date charts, not to sustain online classes or personal activities.

“For now, the best mariners can do is to pick up our classes when they come into port,” she said. In her view, the cost concern needs to be balanced with a focus on cost-effectiveness. “This could be a great way to train people and it is a form of compensation,” she noted.

The challenge Although traditions — the notion that what was good enough in the past ought to be good enough today — may play some role in the apparent inadequacy of crew connectivity on many vessels, the other and more substantial issue is simply cost. On land, fiber-optic and traditional copper communication cables provide tremendous bandwidth at low cost almost everywhere. Even mobile connectivity is kept affordable by routing traffic from cell towers or other “hubs” to those same bits of infrastructure. At sea, of course, those options aren’t available. Radio broadcasting and signals relayed via a small number of satellites with ocean coverage represent the only options. And that kind of connectivity is far more expensive since each new satellite costs many millions of dollars and requires substantial ongoing management.

Intellian’s FB250R and FB500R FleetBroadband terminals support simultaneous voice, data, SMS, fax and streaming IP on Inmarsat’s I4/Alphasat satellite network.

Courtesy Intellian Technologies

Accordingly, a whole corps of vendors is doing its best to provide imaginative and more efficient ways to make that bandwidth stretch. For instance, KVH Industries of Middletown, R.I., recently announced the availability of AgilePlans, an all-inclusive “connectivity as a service” (CaaS) offering for operations, vessels and crews. The subscription fee is $499 a month for a package that includes hardware, connectivity, installation at select ports, entertainment and training content, and global support.

South Korea-based Intellian Technologies, a maker of maritime satellite communication antenna systems, recently announced that its FB250R and FB500R FleetBroadband terminals have received final approval from Inmarsat for use with the Fleet Xpress service and associated network service devices (NSDs). The approval allows Intellian to offer customers a complete pre-integrated, pre-tested, turnkey Fleet Xpress hardware package, including racks and sourcing of hardware components. Customers also may create customized configurations of their own, according to the company.

The company’s FB250R and FB500R FleetBroadband terminals support simultaneous voice, data, SMS, fax and streaming IP capability based on Inmarsat’s I4/Alphasat satellite global broadband network.

The way forward From a fundamentals perspective, connectivity is a matter of crew welfare, Gandy said. People are used to being more connected than ever before, so there is a steady increase in connectivity in both the shipping and drilling fleets. If you go to any shipping conference, the number of vendors displaying connectivity wares is impressive, he said. There is also the safety side: Connectivity to the home office and to weather reports is vital as forecasting continues to grow in quality and importance.

“So, in order to have access to the best weather information and planning tools, it is all done through online sharing tools,” Gandy said.

KVH’s AgilePlans is delivered via a TracPhone V7-IP or TracPhone V11-IP antenna system. Features include usage-based airtime data plans with speeds up to 4 Mbps shore to ship, print and TV news delivered and updated daily, and multicast delivery of third-party chart and weather data.

Courtesy KVH Industries

Bandwidth is the key issue, he noted. With technology improving, however, data rates are getting cheaper and as transponder capacity through the satellite systems is improved, “there is a cost, no doubt, but we are starting to see that coming down,” he said.

One trend Gandy has spotted is that operators will sometimes provide a certain amount of bandwidth and data for the crew, and then “almost like a prepaid phone, they can pay for additional bandwidth on their own,” he said. That way, if someone really wants to see their kid’s softball game streaming live, they can pay for it themselves.

“The price point and the willingness to pay are coming together,” he said.

But not quite yet. At the moment, Maine Maritime has two crews aboard the training ship State of Maine for a 90-day voyage. And, Gandy said, “we have to limit the file size for email attachments because it could easily get overburdened with that many users.”

By Professional Mariner Staff