Words: Stephen Cousins. This article was initially published in the September 2019 issue of At Sea magazine .
As the satellite communications industry matures, options for internet access onboard ships have increased and competition between providers has made WiFi internet much more affordable to install and run.
Shipowners are connecting more vessels to improve operations and connect crew. However, evidence suggests that the benefits are not always trickling down to seafarers who still often encounter data usage caps, restricted access to email, social media or video calls, and high pay-for-use costs.
This appears to run counter to the requirements of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, which recommend reasonable access to ship-to-shore email and internet facilities for all seafarers and at a reasonable cost.
Arguments for and against easy access to onboard WiFi are many, and often conflicting. Critics of giving crew internet access often point to concerns that it will foster isolation, result in access to illegal or explicit material,or disrupt the running of the ship causing safety issues. However, others have highlighted the positive impacts on wellbeing, improved training, and the recruitment and retention of quality employees.
In a 2018 report on crew connectivity, published by technology research organisation Futurenautics, 92% of seafarers said that internet access strongly influences their decision on where to work.
Debbie Cavaldoro, head of strategy at trade union Nautilus International, whose Connectivity at Sea whitepaper identified similar attitudes, told SAS, “Good internet access is almost seen as a right on land, everyone expects it at work and at home. A seafarer’s workplace is their home, so it stands to reason that they should be allowed the same benefits. If Tim Peake is able to tweet every five minutes from the international space station, why is it that some seafarers are still only able to send emails once every six months?”
The tipping point
The highly mobile and often remote nature of shipping operations has historically restricted internet speeds and coverage, but recent advances in technology and a proliferation of higher throughput services, such as very small aperture terminal (VSAT), allow ship operators to provide near-constant broadband connectivity and the ability to run bandwidth-intensive applications. A crucial landmark was reached around three years ago with the launch of unlimited ‘all you can eat’ broadband internet packages, which can reduce costs for ship operators who need only pay a monthly subscription rather than for the volume of data consumed. Gert Jan-Panken, vice-president of merchant vessels within the maritime business unit of Inmarsat told SAS, “Our Fleet Express unlimited service started with a few early adopters about three years ago but has now become mainstream with almost 7,000 vessels signed up. We have noticed a big change in perception around communication in general, where before it was seen as a cost element now it is seen more as an enabler to either facilitate more efficient operation of the vessel or more satisfied crew members.
”Inmarsat offers a range of broadband packages, starting at 2 Mb per second maximum download speed. As with other service providers, it provides ship operators with mechanisms to manage the flow of traffic and allocate a certain amount of bandwidth for business uses and a certain amount for the crew. “Depending on their policy, some operators will give crew unlimited access, others will provide a set amount of time or a data allowance,” said Jan-Panken.
Faster WiFi connections can augment ship operations, enabling real-time analysis of data, including engine monitoring, weather information, and fuel consumption rates, as well as live CCTV and improved bridge and human resource systems. It can also provide a range of benefits to crew such as high-quality video calls, the ability to stream films and TV, and quickly browse email and social media. However, evidence suggests these benefits are not always reaching seafarers. The Nautilus International report, which surveyed nearly 2,000 members, found that although about 90% of ship operators were providing internet access for personal use, only 57% of respondents had access to personal email, 34% to social media, and 6% to video calling. These are the key applications that seafarers look for to stay in contact with family and friends.
“Those who could access personal email had to run it via their master so there was a limit to what they could say. Some people said they could only read emails in public areas on a shared PC so other crew could see their emails. One person even said the crew’s emails were printed out by the master and delivered by hand.” said Cavaldoro.
The Futurenautics report, which was based on a questionnaire with almost 6,000 seafarers, also identified high levels of internet access on ships, but this ran counter to a drop in the availability of free internet access for the crew, which was down from 49% in 2015 to 45% in 2018. The report stated, ‘this could indicate that these solutions are in part being funded by those that use them the most – the crew’. It also indicates that while many shipowners recognise and are keen to exploit the operational benefits of fast WiFi, they are not always willing to pass them on to the crew.
Good onboard internet connectivity has been shown to boost morale and job satisfaction among employees and is often considered a primary means of staying in touch with family and friends onshore. The Nautilus International report includes case studies that demonstrate how seafarers often miss key life events when they are uncontactable at sea. For example, Henk Eijkenaar, a 55-year-old master working for a Dutch-based company, said he missed the death of his grandparents and the birth of his son through being out of contact at sea. Seafarers have described worries and tensions caused by alack of control over when they could contact their families.
But regular contact can be a double-edged sword. According to feedback provided to SAS by the Human Element Special Interest Group at the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science, and Technology (IMarEST), while one person connected with family could be more motivated and productive, another could become stressed and worry about problems at home that they cannot control or help resolve.
Nevertheless, the Human Element Special Interest Group points out that convenient online access enables people to deal with personal admin in a more relaxed way when the vessel is at sea, ‘rather than having to get distracted looking for a hotspot cafe when in berth when the ship is running its busiest operation’.
Online interaction is now a key form of interaction for young people and it could be argued that restricting their access at sea access could damage their relationships. Online entertainment can also provide an important form of relaxation in the absence of shore time in ports, which is much less frequent than 20–30 years ago.
Access to WiFi can be beneficial to a crew’s professional development. Training is an area where seafarers view internet connectivity as a true enabler for behavioural change and career progression. More than three-quarter of respondents to the Futurenautics survey said they viewed ship as a good place to engage in training.
A spokesperson at maritime e-learning provider Videoteltold SAS, “Having a good and consistent WiFi connection is useful for e-learning on ships because seafarers can access the latest and most up-to-date training programmes. It is convenient for seafarers to be able to access courses while onboard rather than wait for an internet connection when ashore at a convenient port, they can learn at a time that suits them, rather than having to wait for a land-based internet connection.”
Ship operators’ tendency to restrict and ration internet access is often driven by underlying concerns over security or a fear that increasing screen-time will distract crew from their work tasks. The Nautilus survey asked 18 companies their concerns about providing open internet access and media streaming services to seafarers, to which 83% said they were worried that users would download illegal or adult content, 67%said users would download too many large files, and 58%said it would be a distraction from work.
This attitude runs counter to policies at most companies on shore, said Cavaldoro, adding, “Pretty much everybody has internet access at their desk in an office and it would not occur to most staff
The haves and have nots
Research onboard two container ships- one with limited WiFi access and one without - revealed some interesting insights into crew attitudes toward the benefits of internet connectivity.
The study formed part of a wider qualitative survey, carried out by Royal Holloway University and sponsored by Inmarsat that examined the underlying factors that influence how seafarers engage with digital technology when at sea and the effect on wellbeing, crew cohesion, morale, safety, and more.
Ship 1 allowed crew to connect using their mobiles, via password protected personalised accounts, with each seafarer limited to 50 MB of data per week. Although this was seen as better than no connectivity at all, there was a general consensus that the data allowance was not enough to maintain satisfactory everyday relations with family and friends, especially during long periods at sea.
The report stated, “In particular, these limitations meant it was not possible to use Skype or FaceTime, download videos or music, or communicate beyond sending text messages. The 50 MB data allowance was therefore only seen to be useful for sending WhatsApp or IMO [instant messenger] messages.”
Most participants said 50 MB was better than 0 MB, 100 MB was better than 50 MB, and unlimited connectivity was better than 100 MB. Ship 2 had no WiFi provision and there was a general perception that access to WiFi would improve standards of living and working, in terms of relations with family and onboard camaraderie.
The report said that most participants had never been on a ship with internet connectivity, prompting them to speculate on its impact to their working lives at sea, how it would impact their use of digital technology and ability to talk to loved ones back home. “Most participants noted that having onboard internet, regardless of any perceived restrictions, would give them choice, a choice that they did not feel they currently had,” the report said.
Crew and officers agreed although there was an assumption among shipping companies that providing some form of internet would respond to and solve demands for connectivity. But they agreed that a “connected ship” could mean many things with multiple restrictions, limitations, and costs, which create a more complex picture.
To help allay management concerns, 84% of seafarers who responded to the Nautilus survey said they would be willing to sign an internet usage policy if it meant better access to the internet onboard. A similar percentage had never received cybersecurity training from employers, so providing such training could help ship operators prevent inappropriate use and reduce the risk of introducing cyberthreats on board.
A part of the arguments for not providing onboard connectivity is that it would disrupt work and rest patterns on ships. However, the latest research by Royal Holloway University of London, in fact, shows the opposite and that a lack of reliable onboard internet tends to disrupt work patterns. It states, “If the only method of digitally connecting with kin and friendship networks is through personal mobile phones [i.e. there is no internet]seafarers will connect when the ship is within mobile phone signal range, regardless of the time of the day, external factors, work, or rest hours.”
And countering concerns that the distraction of online connectivity can compromise safety, the Futurenauticsreport found that 95% of respondents considered it to have a positive impact on safety aboard ship, although did not outline exactly what impacts these were. Greater crew isolation is often pointed to as a good reason to restrict internet access on board. Some ship operators have claimed that social interaction is damaged by the provision of enhanced communications onboard vessels, a view that was also shared by 53% of seafarers in the Futurenauticsreport.
However, according to the Nautilus report, online connectivity is not the only reason for crew to retreat into their cabins. Cavaldoro said, “The prevalence of multinational crews mean that seafarers might be sailing without anyone who speaks their language and that inability to interact is what is driving them into their cabins.” Collectively, these findings suggest that a more nuanced approach to internet provision, that improves crew access without offering unlimited 24/7 access, might be a more effective alternative.
Ultimately, a decent WiFi connection might incur costs, and come with some drawbacks, but evidence suggests that a failure to provide good internet services could have a damaging impact on a ship operator’s reputation and their ability to attract talent. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents to the Nautilus International survey said they would or possibly would move to a different company if it provided better onboard connectivity than their present one, with all other terms and conditions being equal. And many young people today consider a career with little or limited access to the internet an unattractive option.
As such, the trade union has made internet access one of the key issues in its collective bargaining agreements used to negotiate better terms with employers. “Our members are saying, outside of pay and conditions, internet access is now the most important thing when they are at sea,” said Cavaldoro. “If you want to retain your crew, and recruit the best crews, it’s worth the investment,” she concluded.