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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.

Remote monitoring

Where a satellite system has been installed for reasons other than GMDSS, the attached devices can be many and various. In many ships the satellite communication unit will be connected to a local area network (LAN) to which will also be connected several PCs, communication devices such as telephones, faxes and possibly wireless hubs, allowing use of mobile phones, PDAs and tablets.

Updating of electronic navigation charts is one use and another is the monitoring of engines and other equipment on board. Sensors on engines recording temperature, pressure and multiple other parameters using a proprietary control unit can have the data they recorded compiled and sent via the satellite to the machinery supplier for constant diagnostics and to satisfy computer-based maintenance programmes.

Remote monitoring and reporting need not be confined to machinery; it is possible to link an output from a ship’s VDR to the communication system and so supply the shore office with information for incident investigation or even real-time monitoring in emergencies.

Such centres are to be found more and more often in the head offices of major ship operators and, for the largest operators, duplicated in different locations around the globe. On certain research and seismic vessels, the data from instruments can also be compiled and despatched automatically.

Connected ship

Despite satellite equipment having now been installed on ships for around four decades, it has to be said that the opportunities and benefits that it offers are only just beginning to be explored. However, with the world fleet growing rapidly in numbers and data usage expanding ever faster, the limits of even the increased bandwidth allowed by expansion of VSAT into the Ku and Ka bands could be reached in the not too distant future. Some industry observers believe that within less than a decade, satellite usage will have increased by a factor of five, even without new uses for data transmission becoming available.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many class societies and equipment suppliers reported increased use of video streaming and other communications to carry out remote surveys and to instruct crew in carrying out repairs to equipment. Such services ahd been predicted but where necessitated by circumstances and appear to have spurred interest in making greater use of such technologies even under less demanding circumstances.

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