Internet access, services win workers, bolster retention
When you are thousands of miles, and weeks or months out at sea, the next best thing to physically being there, is an electronic connection home, and today, few mariners will board vessels without access to some form of it. “What seafarers want overwhelmingly is a cost-effective way to speak to, and see, their loved ones,” notes researcher Futurenautics, adding that with millennials in particular considering access to the Internet as important as access to food and water, “the implications for the maritime industry are likely to be significant.”
Indeed, internet access and cheap global roaming SIM cards top the list of desired amenities in recent surveys of seafarers. And while keeping in touch and up to date with family is most important, shipboard personnel use an array of connectivity applications - social media, Skype, Wi-Fi and email - to handle personal banking and financial needs, shop, make appointments, and to take training classes and certification tests. They also like to keep up with current events and to unwind after their shifts with various entertainment options – scanning the news, watching movies and TV series, playing games and general internet surfing.
Connectivity Fuels Efficiencies
But the value of communications is more than even that, says Brent Bruun, KVH Industries Executive Vice President, Mobile Broadband. “More owners and operators are beginning to look at connectivity as a strategic advantage,” . . . for “getting ready for the Internet of Things, [and for] providing operational updates to the bridge, etc.”
KVH CEO Martin Kits van Heyningen was more emphatic in a recent interview. “The maritime industry needs to change how it thinks about connectivity and its impact on competitiveness and profitability.” The maritime industry has spent the last 20 years trying to limit the amount of data going on and off vessels while the rest of the world has been doing the exact opposite in adopting big data.
But the industry is beginning to realize that the investment in IP satellite systems also enables access to digital applications and methods of digital operation, i.e. safety monitoring, remote diagnostics and repair, system updates, proactive maintenance, etc., that can greatly improve operational efficiencies, says Futurenautics. On the job, “crews need to be able to connect with and interact with increasing amounts of data that is coming out not just from the humans around them, but increasingly the ship [systems] and even the cargo itself,” adds the market researcher.
The resulting demand for connectivity is so great that Futurenautics saw crew usage patterns of most comms service rocket from once a week in 2014 to daily access in 2015, with 60 percent specifically using the internet daily. Ships with limited or no services are considered dinosaurs, which doesn’t bode well for recruiting or retention efforts.
“Connectivity is extremely important,” says Elizabeth Ledet, administrative supervisor of the Systems & Advanced Technology Department, Seacor Marine LLC., which uses KVH’s V7 VSATs, bandwidth, Static IP addresses, and modems on 13 of their Gulf of Mexico vessels and 23 international vessels.
So much so that, according to Futurenautics, 73 percent of respondents to its survey, “The Crew Connectivity 2015,” said the level of connectivity provided onboard affects their employment decisions (See figure 17). That’s up from 69 percent last year. “Of that 73 percent, 78 percent said it was a strong or very strong influence on which contract they decided to take,” according to the report. It is especially crucial to those with higher IT skills, “precisely the kind of employees ship operators should be looking for.”
HR Wake Up Call
“This should serve as a wake-up call to crewing and HR departments,” says Futurenautics. “It’s known as one of the ‘Trinity’ – pay, rotation and internet connectivity. We are recruiting for the oil majors and major shipping companies, and we simply wouldn’t be able to attract the top talent without offering new ships with good communications on board,” points out Mark Charman, Chief Executive Officer of recruiter Faststream.
Charman adds that not only will already hard-to-source officers jump ship to better equipped vessels, “the industry will not be able to attract talent from developing countries, where people are being given a choice of shore-based careers in industries where they can return home to their family every night, unless improved connectivity becomes standard across the shipping industry.”
Good Spend in a Down Economy
The ability to positively impact crew morale with online connectivity is especially important today given the aftershocks of falling oil and gas prices roiling the maritime sector. For example, Crewtoo’s survey reports that seafarer wages have fallen by as much as 40 percent – the worst some mariners have ever seen. But recruiters and users alike don’t expect to see organizations cutting existing services.
Companies already heavily invested in connectivity will keep those systems intact but probably hold off on expanding bandwidth or upgrading the current system, says Gladney Darroh, president and CEO of Piper-Morgan Associates Personnel. “In today’s market, do you continue to gold plate something? Maybe silver-plating works just fine.” It certainly puts a halt to looking into the latest equipment, agrees Ledet, noting that Seacor has made no changes to its existing service levels, which are provided free of charge to crew.
Economic pressures are also forcing companies to both squeeze more use out of, and get a better handle on, their communications network. A downward trend in connectivity equipment and delivery costs and system size combined with an uptick in subscription service offerings and an expansion in functionality is redefining shipboard operations.
Operational Efficiency Drives Boats
Management used to just blindly throw more bandwidth (i.e. money) at problems; not any more. In addition to divvying up bandwidth between crew and operational apps, with management tools like Bluetide Communications’ Access Management Portal (AMP) application for wireless network management, it’s possible to monitor, from any location or device, network usage and change bandwidth allocations, divert traffic or incoming data dumps to unused channels, or even shut off access, in real-time, at the push of a button. Users can run the application or trust Bluetide to monitor network usage and make requested changes, like Jackson Offshore does. “It lets me focus on other priorities,” says Trent Zimmer, Jackson Offshore’s IT Manager.
Jackson’s eight vessels access a 1024X512 bandwidth pipe via VSAT and backup Iridium phones service, WiFi and wireless access points, Bluetide Communications/Hughes modem and below deck equipment, value-added services such as monitoring, and ancillary networks. The company dynamically allocates a percentage of its network to secure (corporate) use and a percentage to crew and guests. “This allows each sector to throttle up to 100 percent of the available bandwidth, but to never go below its allocation,” says Zimmer. “It’s a great approach to ensuring crew access doesn’t interfere with corporate needs.”
At Seacor, IT currently does not keep a close eye on crew usage, but plans to in the future. “Our Liftboat Division is using a system that allows for us to know who is online and we can see what they are doing online. The Marine side has not moved in that direction at this time,” says Ledet. The company does use a home-grown device that includes a firewall to restrict certain types of crew’s connectivity.
Monitoring Makes an Impact
Reliable, affordable connectivity allows more than just serving up daily information dumps back to shore. It enables meteorological and nautical map updates on a scheduled basis, vessel tracking and safety monitoring. For instance, a camera onboard can provide onshore supervisors - and even clients – with a window into shipboard safety practices, which can be immediately corrected, as well as cargo security and density. Feeding a steady stream of equipment and fuel-related sensor data back to the home office allows for real time analysis, providing the opportunity for timely route, speed and crew schedule changes, equipment fixes or safety and security alerts.
Jackson Offshore is a good example of a company using its connectivity to improve vessel performance. “We have fuel tracking on several vessels that lets us see fuel flow in real time. It’s also part of an electronic log system, which captures a ton of information – fuel flow, oil flow, consumption, temperature, pressure – you can see and make decisions based on that data,” says Zimmer.
From a cost-saving perspective, he is particularly pleased with Bluetide. “They’ll change the amount of bandwidth needed on 24-hour notice – that is almost unheard of in this industry. They let us monitor some of the bigger cost drivers – condition-based maintenance, fuel consumption, full access to generators and engines – so we can see what these are doing in real time. The system sees problems as they happen, so we can be proactive instead of reactive with a skyrocketing problem and save on costs.”
He also uses vessel mapping fairly heavily. “Bluetide has a service - Bluevision - we’ve not seen elsewhere. It gives us the ability to use geo-fences to check on a vessel in real time. If it is in an area it shouldn’t be, we get notified.” Jackson also has just installed a tilt zoom camera that monitors back deck activity. “All the managers have access. It’s useful from both a safety aspect and for clients to see availability of space on the deck,” notes Zimmer.
Power of One
In addition to providing a richer functionality set, communications services are becoming cheaper, and more multi-tasking. More affordable broadband technologies like KVH Industries’ mini-VSAT Broadband 2.0, claim to deliver sufficient broadband capabilities without trashing budgets. KVH touts its ‘Power of One’ concept, which it describes as single provider, one-stop combination of global satellite connectivity, application engineering, network management, multicasting delivery of licensed content and ongoing support.
It’s mini-VSAT system utilizes a C/Ku-band satellite network, global private terrestrial and MPLS network for enhanced security; includes an updated and compact TracPhone V-IP series system; usage plan options; and offers faster, more affordable, non-bandwidth-hogging content delivery via KVH’s IP-MobileCast content delivery service. The latter reportedly can deliver up to 500 GB of content monthly to vessels without impacting data speed, airtime plan or network performance.
IP-MobileCast’s multicasting technology enables one transmission to send files via broadband link to a central server on each vessel, which can be then accessed essentially off network by all crew members. The process cuts client costs by taking advantage of the unused bandwidth, and frees up the ship’s network to handle real-time traffic efficiently. This replaces the more expensive and complex process of sending a single transmission per individual device.
Value of Data Exceeds Cost
To think all this started with crew demands for access. “Be honest. We all look at our phones and get on the internet while we are working,” says Ledet. “It was only a matter of time before it moved out of the offices and onto our vessels.” So it has, opening up opportunities for efficiency that operators could only dream of a few short years ago.
The industry today has the technology to meet the connectivity needs of both crew and company, and the evidence shows, according to Futurenautics, that there is “increasingly not simply a moral or regulatory, but commercial imperative, to deliver it.”
As a result, “connectivity today is critical across the board for all manner of activities,’’ says Zimmer.
Forward-thinking ship companies are moving to start capturing the true value of their investment in IP connectivity. They are beginning to recognize that “the value of data returned to shore far outweighs the cost of the service to do so,” says Robert Hopkins, Jr., Director, IP-MobileCast Services, KVH Industries, Inc. Not surprisingly, this means that going forward, ships will want to connect crews not just to family, but to everything they can, moving better connectivity to the top of not just crew, but operator lists as well.
Patricia Keefe is a veteran journalist, editor and commentator who writes about technology, business and maritime topics.