Commenting on the recent study by Nautilus International regarding connectivity onboard, Global Navigation Solutions suggested that despite estimates that communications account for just 1% of daily operating costs, the relative cost of bandwidth and equipment made some shipowners unwilling to provide connectivity to seafarers.
However a recently published survey conducted by seafarer’s union Nautilus International has found that restrictions placed on usage are as significant a barrier to greater consumption as cost. Nautilus describes the survey as broadly representative of the industry as a whole and if so, it poses a couple of important questions.
The research showed that many respondents experience restrictions on internet usage and that respondents could be influenced by internet provision from employers when making decisions about job opportunities.
However, the survey results also show that despite some companies believing that social interaction is affected by the provision of enhanced communications onboard vessels, seafarers view lack of common language skills as having the highest impact on social interaction onboard – though use of personal devices or spending time alone in cabins follows closely behind.
Of course, cost remains a major issue for both companies and seafarers, something that sits in complete opposition to the messages that the providers consistently put out – that the cost of bandwidth, equipment, services and content continues to fall. Indeed one provider of VSAT services has recently launched a service at such low rates it has prompted questions about the business model that sits behind it.
Many other options are available too. Though controversial, service providers have well-developed plans that enable owners to defray the cost of some of the investment in VSAT by charging the crew to use it. And many appear only too happy to pay, provided that privacy and quality are part of the deal.
Nautilus also cites the ILO Maritime Labour Convention which recommends that ‘reasonable access’ to ship-shore telephone, email and internet facilities, at a ‘reasonable’ charge, is now part of the responsibility of the ship operator. However, 67% of survey respondents are still unaware of this.
Many owners are well aware of the need to offer internet access as a means of retaining crew and some believe that the future of this market will see more on-demand apps and content. In their defence they also point out the tension between free and paid-for services, with crew prepared to wait until they are in port or near land and use local terrestrial networks.
Cultural differences are also highly significant in determining whether crew adopt communications services. The large numbers of Filipino crew and their close connections to family means they will use services more than some North Asian nationalities. There is a clear divide between shipowning nations in some emerging markets as to whether they are behind the curve or in line with the broader global trends.
Shipmanagers also struggle to interest owners in new services – especially if they go beyond what is considered the minimum necessary level of provision. In a tough market, owners must balance investment in new services alongside the imperatives of debt pay down and essential maintenance.
As Nautilus points out, placing limitations on internet access could be damaging for the industry in the longer term. As technology becomes increasingly invaluable to personal and professional life, many young people would consider a career with little or limited access to internet an unattractive option.
Companies across the world give their employees access to the internet and regulate this to ensure it is used professionally and securely, and vessels should be no different. Most office-based employees would find it very strange to hear that their internet access was restricted to a select number of business-related sites simply because of concerns that they may access adult or restricted content or stream content.
Instead, at a time when shipping is focusing on investing in the future workforce, there is a need to invest now in the future of the industry. Improved access to communications should play a central part in that future.