Crew and passenger communications

Over the years since GMDSS was introduced communication use on ships has undergone a revolution and here we look at crew and passenger communications. The surge in satellite communication equipment sales that resulted 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.

When the digitalisation of shipping was not even a consideration, the one that attracted the most attention was crew calling. Ever since It has been promoted both as an essential element of crew welfare and as a means of retaining staff in a time of shortage of skilled seafarers. 

That argument is generally accepted but as access has improved and more modern technology that has allowed internet access as well as telephone calls has been installed there have been some negative comments. One is that some seafarers, able to use the internet for gaming, browsing and social media, are tending to isolate themselves from colleagues to the detriment of cohesive teamwork on the ship.It should also be pointed out that in at least three casualty investigations by the UK’s MAIB, use of personal communications equipment causing distraction has been mentioned as a contributing factor to a grounding or collision.

Access for crew to communications is by no means universal. Take up has been high in some sectors especially in the offshore and among higher quality operators. Probably up to half of the vessels sailing have no provision for mobile telephone or internet connectivity for crew whatsoever beyond what the crew can provide for themselves. A very small number of frugal owners may feel that they have good reason not to provide crews with the means to report poor conditions on board.

Crew calling on the ships that adopted it early usually involved the operator providing a telephone or a computer terminal for email 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 communications usage either through a prepaid card or by deduction from wages. Logging on to the systems is usually by assigned passwords so as to allow the operator to identify actual usage.

On smaller vessels and those with little 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 while seafarers whose families lack a home telephone or computer (quite rare today but not unheard of) will have no need of the service. Where access to communications is limited, ratings generally fare worse than officers.

Crew communications and connectivity is partially in the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention. Although there is no specific mention of provision in the mandatory part of the convention text, there is reference in the guidelines. Guideline B 3.1.11 Section 4 lists facilities that should be given at no cost to the seafarer where practical. Item J in this text covers ‘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’. Exactly how this guideline is interpreted and put into operation by flag States and ship operators is not widely publicised, but it does at least open up the door to wider access for seafarers in future.

Since the early days of crew and passenger communications, communication service providers have been rolling out new products to take advantage of increased access by crews. Today this normally takes the form of the dedicated terminal being omitted in favour of crew using their own cell phones, tablets or computers with some form of control system and software monitoring individual use. Depending upon the ship type there are at least two ways of doing 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 new normal billing system. A variation on this allows the crew members to use their own phones but with a different prepaid SIM card fitted. With the different cards crew can take advantage of special great calls between similarly equipped phones even when the users may be on a different vessel.

Another method is by means of picocells connected to the ships communication system. A picocell is a small base station installed in accommodation areas of the ship that extends mobile coverage. Connected to a remote gateway it will convert a mobile call into a narrowband IP signal for transmission over the satellite network used by the vessel. The picocells allow mobile phones fitted with appropriate prepaid SIM cards to access the communications be they VSAT or L-Band. If a VSAT connection is available, it would be possible to assign roaming rights that allow crew to use their own phones.

Wherever prepaid SIM cards 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 prepaid SIM has been replaced by one obtained locally through a local or international service provider. If a phone has a dual sim slot this makes switching even easier.

Determining the full extent of crew access is not easy and relies on surveys carried out by interested parties. There have been no published surveys during the last two years when seafarers arguably had a greater need for communications than at any time in the past.

A survey carried out in 2017 by the seafarers’ trade union Nautilus International, which represents more than 22,000 maritime professionals mostly from the UK and the Netherlands, showed that although 88% of seafarers now have some sort of internet access, only 6% can video-call families. By comparison, statistics at that time 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 findings showed 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 Nautilus’ members who completed the survey considered crew and passenger 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.

Another 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, 75% of vessels have internet access but just 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.

For ship operators to allow crew members access to communications and to recover the cost either by selling prepaid cards or deductions from wages is one thing and leaves them in a breakeven situation. For the seafarers the cost of communications is still a big issue. In the early days a voice phone call would cost as much as US$0.53 per minute – maybe not a huge cost for an offshore vessel crew member but very much so for the average AB on a cargo vessel.

The 2018 Futurenautics study revealed seafarers worldwide are spending, on average, between US$89.46 (seafarers from Europe, the Middle East and Africa) and US$132.13 (south central Asia) on communication whilst at sea. As of 1 January 2016, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) stated that the basic monthly wage for an AB was US$614. Their communication costs are therefore a very high percentage of wages – some may consider too high a percentage especially if the seafarer has a family to care for.

For shipowners some 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.

The Nautilus survey results were announced in July 2017 but had probably been compiled some time earlier. By coincidence the cyberattack experienced by Maersk Line, which caused it to replace every computer within the company took place in June 2017. Ever since the question of cyber security and the vulnerabilities of systems has constantly raised the issue of crew communications being a possible weak point that needs addressing.

Security was not really an issue when crew communications first took off because the mobile phones then were generally not able to do anything beyond making voice calls and SMS messages. Even when the first iPhones appeared in 2007, their price tag was beyond most seafarers.

The issue of cybersecurity will be covered in a future article, but it is a convenient point to highlight that separating crew/passenger and ship’s communication networks is perhaps a sensible precaution given that cyber threats are more likely to come from emails and personal communication given the lack of controls that are usually exercised.

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