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Maritime Reporter and Engenering News White Papers
Published: Nov 2018
  • Satellite Communications

“Getting Your Maritime Connectivity Strategy Right”

Ship operation is being reinvented, and it’s an evolution with the online revolution and digital connections at its core. The challenges of satisfying and balancing the many connectivity demands of the ship, its operators and its crew, are often far from clear and pack a hidden punch. Such needs include those of the master and officers requiring easy, uninterrupted contact with colleagues, harbor officials, administrators and regulators on shore, and to carry out competitively critical tasks such as least cost routing. Then there are the seafarers who have come to expect daily connectivity with family and friends ashore (access to the Internet has been classed as a human right by the United Nations) and the availability of social media, movies, news, and sports programs they consider part of civilized life.

As a result, any effective maritime SATCOM strategy must serve
several masters:
• Efficiency and profitability of operations,
• Operational and regulatory compliance,
• Effective manning and retention,
• Safety at sea, and
• The needs of an increasingly “digital native” crew.

Right off the bat, maritime managers must take into account the cost of any solution. Unlike the modest outlays needed for personal devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and personal computers ashore, purchasing or leasing and then installing equipment on ships has traditionally been a major investment, to the tune of $10,000 to $80,000 per terminal based on size, capabilities and service. This is all before any monthly service bills.
Once the system is installed and at sea, for the sake of those on the bridge and elsewhere on the ship, as well as everyone and everything in the ship’s environment, it is vital that the set-up works reliably without unexpected hardware, service, or network limitations or restrictions, while it supports the needs of diverse stakeholders onboard and ashore.

Benefits and Applications of an Effective SATCOM Strategy

Successfully deploying such an end-to-end solution, based on an effective, well-planned strategy, offers a range of benefits to shoreside and shipboard operations, safety, and competitive positioning.

Operations & Regulations: On the bridge, the officers need to harness their electronic resources to ensure the ship complies with constantly evolving regulations on such key matters as emissions reduction (involving the switch to more expensive fuels in designated coastal regions, and back again for the open seas) and Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirements relating to electronic charts, maritime security alerts, and other vital matters.
In addition, there is what has until now been a stack of paperwork to comply with the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) convention on the testing, education planning, and detailed reporting of each seafarer’s individual training and competency records. Shifting to an e-training approach that takes advantage of digital content delivered by satellite and incorporating a training management system enables seafarers and administrators to stay up to date, comply with requirements to record and report training status, and access necessary records across the entire fleet.
In his preface to the Futurenautics Crew Connectivity Survey 2018 Survey Report, Martin Kits van Heyningen, CEO of KVH Industries, Inc., observed, “The effect of the mindset shift regarding technology throughout the maritime industry appears to be well understood by
seafarers: Some 69% view big data and analytics, for example, as an opportunity for their jobs in the next five years versus only 17% who view it as a threat. Likewise, 75% of seafarers reported seeing predictive maintenance as an opportunity versus 15% seeing it as a threat. Some 68% of seafarers see automation as an opportunity versus 21% who see it as a threat, which illustrates the massive shift to connected data to inform real-time decision making. This is an extremely exciting time for the maritime industry, as digitalization begins to transform ship operations and open up many opportunities to keep this industry vital.”

Manning and Recruiting: Satellite communications can also play a vital role in addressing a 21st century headache for many sectors of the maritime industry: how to attract and retain a new generation of seafarers. These are the men and women who are considered “digital natives,” who might spend weeks at sea at a stretch, and who, because of generally improved quayside turnaround times, or new port regulations that prohibit shore leave, will have little free time to ‘connect’ from shore. Many of these relatively young men and women are highly educated and accustomed to constant contact with their families and friends through social media, apps, and the wide range of content available online. This plugged-in generation will quickly turn their backs on a career in the merchant marine unless their e-needs are served.
Crew Welfare: The Maritime Labour Convention has set new standards for the conditions under which seafarers live onboard, and includes calls for seafarers to have access to news and entertainment and affordable communications services. Connectivity is undeniably part of life at sea now, as the recent in the recent Futurenautics Crew Connectivity 2018 Survey illustrates. The average availability of Internet access is reported at 75%, a more than 30% increase since the last survey. Some 61% of seafarers report having Internet access “always or most of the time.” And only 2% report “never” having access. Seafarers today take an average of three devices onboard, with smartphones the most popular device, as well as laptops and even smart watches and fitness trackers. Indeed, staying connected is so important that 75% of seafarers say Internet access influences their decisions about where to work, a sentiment shared by officers and ratings alike. Interestingly, there was a significant increase in the degree to which it influenced their decision, with seafarers who said Internet access has a “strong or very strong influence on who they worked for” going from 78% in prior years to an impressive 92%. Nevertheless, the amount of data available to seafarers per month is a pittance compared to when on shore. This gross disparity of modern life onboard compared with the luxury of shore-based work is untenable. What is a progressive shipping company faced with substantial costs for providing high levels of Internet access to do? To allow their employees to travel freely along what used to be called “the information super-highway” would saddle the ship managers with potentially onerous monthly expenses. However, not providing such support puts crewing and manning requirements at risk.

Considerations for a Successful SATCOM Strategy

Shipowners are sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place: keen to tune in to the Internet age, but fearful of the potentially massive bills related to legacy connectivity solutions that were extremely expensive and offered slow data speeds. Stuck in the middle, ITC managers yearn for a customized service but are constrained to keep down costs. As a result, it then appears that they are thwarting the digital revolution that is sweeping through every other industry, but often they are doing their best to ensure that their company would not be hit by “bill shock,” the huge monthly airtime bills that can result from runaway data use and something that could quite likely cost them their jobs. This quandary prompted many ITC managers to tamp down on consumption by blocking websites and file types, putting in place transmission protocols, limiting access, and installing file optimization software to reduce the amount of data transmitted. This approach protects the network but at the expense of versatility and flexibility, essentially walling off sections of the Internet from the officers and crew.
Speed vs. Need: Capacity is not speed — it is bandwidth used over time and has to be carefully managed. The promised speed refers to the total bandwidth delivered to the vessel and is divided among the number of users trying to access the network. This, it is said, means that individual vessels or users do not experience anything close to expected speeds. The catch is that the amount of capacity that can be used over the course of a month, even on a relatively slow connection, can be very large if the system is in constant use. In addition, the speed for “unlimited plans” is also being divided among all users, resulting in individual performance that can be dramatically lower than the performance users might expect. This is especially so in regard to streaming of rich formats such as video and audio conferencing, Skype, social media and other applications, which gobble up bandwidth and are likely to be blocked or curtailed. Glued to the screen, crew members used to wide open connections onshore fail to recognize that they are bringing down the network because “fair use” thresholds in the contract with the service provider will trigger the brakes. These very activities are of course the most popular services for younger seafarers. They complain, and the next thing is that the ITC manager escalates the issue to the service provider, which insists it is keeping to the service contract.
The fair use policies are often contained in “fine print” clauses and state that service will be delivered at the promised rate until certain thresholds are reached, at which point the service may be slowed deliberately to limit consumption. Deadlock. A clampdown on usage by the crew saps morale, and all, except perhaps the vendor, live unhappily ever after. The ITC manager, who had initially won kudos for securing the cheapest, fixed price deal, now has to answer for supposedly letting his employer down by failing to ensure a high-quality service.
The shipowner or manager must be careful in weighing the promise versus the performance of a “fixed rate” service solution. It might be hard to secure redress for the overall poor quality if service is acceptable for even just 1 hour in 24. In any case, just how does one measure performance?
The goal has to be that of attaining quality of connectivity independent of the size of the monthly airtime contract and with transparent pricing. It has to be accepted that there will be a need to download large files including chart databases and manuals for operational and training reasons; and commercially licensed content, including TV shows, news, sporting events, movies, and music.
Making the decision that supports a particular fleet requires the time and effort to assess critical needs, expectations for growth, and what factors will offer the greatest competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive industry. Taking these into account will help ship operators overcome the challenges and get their “connected” strategy right. See the KVH White Paper, “Getting Your Maritime Connectivity Strategy Right,” for a guide to selecting a connectivity solution that is right for every ship.

Back to Special Reports and Whitepapers Library
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