The shipping industry’s response to improved communications at sea has failed to reflect the needs of seafarers or the potential of new technology, says Trevor Whitworth from Globecomm Maritime.
It will be obvious to anyone ashore or at sea that we are living in an era of huge and exciting change for maritime communications. There is a greater choice of satellite providers than ever before and investment in new services places us on the verge of a bandwidth deluge.
As a result, the change in the way that we consume all forms of content, social and traditional media, film and TV, is affecting our work and leisure in almost equal measure.
By some estimates, Americans now spend about three hours a day on their smartphones. The older generation might find this fact depressing, but in the developed world at least, our shared experience is very different from what it used to be.
At sea, we have come a long way in a short time – from inconvenient and expensive phone calls to email, internet and social networks and most recently, paid-for content including film, TV and sport.
Of course, crew are already able to access much of this content for themselves. Using their own devices they can use onboard data services to make calls, text and chat as well as consuming news, music, video and social content. The issue for owners and managers of course is that this is much harder for them to control.
It might be fairly easy to prevent access to certain apps over a ship’s network but crews are endlessly creative people. They will be able to access all the feeds, websites and sources that they want and to some, the presence of security or constraints are a challenge not a deterrent.
Since the boom in mobile devices and the emergence of social media, owners, managers and the loss prevention community have warned about the risks of isolation that may result and argued that common activities are better for crew morale and safety.
This is laudable but the reality is that both should be encouraged and the idea that there should be restrictions on access by crew should be treated very carefully.
The bigger question to my mind, is why shipmanagers seem to want to exert so much control over their staff and limit their access to communications by making it expensive or difficult to do so.
A similar level of intrusion into the working lives of land-based workers would rightly be considered intolerable, but for some reason, the belief remains in shipping that no contact – or very limited and expensive contact – is somehow better for crew morale, productivity and mental health.
The issues that need to be managed include mandated rest hours, the impact of bad news from home and the need for team morale vital to a well-run ship.
These are not new problems. The technology is forcing us to think about them in different ways but until recently at least, the response has been underwhelming.
It would be far better for serious owners, operators and managers to embrace the trend and manage the process, with respect for the crew’s needs and ability to access information, stay in touch with home and be entertained.
The fact is that the future is going to bring us more change so perhaps we should be more open-minded about what crew need, what the technology can deliver and how to create an environment in which communications is considered more like an abundant utility than a rare and precious commodity.
As a former mariner myself, I understand the need to use communications as an aid to psychological wellbeing for seafarers. Because the industry has been operating in an environment of bandwidth scarcity for so long, it is not surprising that more complex services have not found a high degree of take-up.
Now the industry can begin to think more proactively and discuss ways of introducing services such as remote health monitoring, using devices which could drive improved health awareness for crews as well as potentially lead to better compliance with working and rest hour regulation. It is harder to fiddle a Fitbit than it is a timesheet.
In a future of semi-autonomous ships with reduced manning, I would argue that there would be a need for much greater ship-shore connectivity. This would be far more than just operational control and intervention from shore, but a truly always-on ability for crew to connect to support whenever they need it.
Whether that future is the one that we get to is hard to say, but in the meantime and for the next decade at least we will be struggling with these issues. Technology does not go in reverse and we can expect a greater degree of access to information and data for crew and shore alike.
One thing is certain, trying to swim against a tide of social media, chat, video, instant connections, not to mention news and sport, is pointless. As long as there are seafarers, they will want cheap and easy access to friends, family and beyond. The difference is that they increasingly believe it is their right to do so.