Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Covid-19, demand for seafarer communications has risen sharply as crew make more voice calls to home
Anxiety levels among seafarers at sea are rising and the need for easier access to online news and social media has never been higher as crew are increasingly quarantined on board.
Inmarsat Maritime president Ronald Spithout says providing mariners with enhanced levels of connectivity and support is now critical.
He said there is a “direct connection between the coronavirus and surging demand for crew voice call and data services” as seafarers deal with issues and anxiety while at sea. “As elsewhere, anxiety levels at sea have been on the rise with the spread of Covid-19,” said Mr Spithout.
Some in shipping and satellite communications are taking proactive steps to improve connectivity availability and reduce call costs to seafarers. But more needs to be done to facilitate crew communications and access to welfare support services.
“As Covid-19 unfolds, much more will certainly need to be done to work more closely with shipowners, managers and even the master on board to ensure crews get access to the packages available,” said Mr Spithout. “We need everyone to embrace the challenges and work together on these initiatives,” he continued.
“The responsibility does not fall solely on the satellite operator or welfare association at this time: we are all in this together,” Mr Spithout said.
Without assistance from shipping industry stakeholders, crew will find different ways, and potentially more dangerous methods, of remaining in contact with families, even if their credit has run low.
Research by the Royal Holloway, University of London, the Sailors’ Society and Inmarsat illuminated patterns of behaviour that directly linked connectivity and welfare.
This report found seafarers will use their mobile phone, regardless of the time of day and whether they are working or not, as soon as a ship comes within range of a terrestrial network.
“Where seafarers had to ration their allowance, the researchers found it could mean domestic issues were not resolved, adding to personal anxiety,” said Mr Spithout.
“A seafarer working on the high seas worrying about those at home is unlikely to be focused,” he said.
“The research also found crew members can be ingenious in finding work-arounds when denied connectivity,” Mr Spithout commented. “Respect for crew welfare is all the more imperative in difficult times to avoid risks to a ship’s cyber security.”
Seafarers are also using more of a ship’s bandwidth to remain updated with news worldwide and home nations on the impacts of the coronavirus global crisis.
“With anxiety over coronavirus at a high pitch worldwide, those at sea are as entitled as any to the medical and policy updates disseminated by authorities and news media, whether aimed at seafarers themselves or their loved ones at home,” said Mr Spithout.
In recent weeks, Inmarsat has been working with shipowners to find ways of subsidising increasing bandwidth demands from vessels. It intends to announce further incentives that wholesale partners can select to provide additional support for crew.
Inmarsat has also assisted seafarers to increase their call-time without raising costs. “Since the virus first became widespread in Asia we have been working across the company and with our partners to take proactive steps to keep seafarers connected and in touch with loved ones during this difficult time,” said Mr Spithout.
In February, Inmarsat enabled free-of-charge additional call time for users of its ChatCard voice services for crew. “All shipmanagers offering the service have been made aware of the offer, while we also sought help from groups such as the Singapore Shipowners Association to spread the word,” said Mr Spithout.
Inmarsat also provides free medical advice and assistance to seafarers over its Fleet One, FleetBroadband and F77 services. This is available anywhere, anytime and for anybody in need. “We have prioritised telemedicine as an area for service development with our application partners, at no cost to owners or the crew,” said Mr Spithout.
Inmarsat improved crew connectivity using the Fleet Hotspot wifi solution for the Crew Xpress service launched for Fleet Xpress customers in 2019. Crew Xpress offers a managed channel for crew login, with time/data exchanged for vouchers/online payment.
“In addition, earlier in March, I hosted a conversation with the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and the main maritime charities to discuss development of a crew portal and further data and voice incentives for crew quarantined on board,” said Mr Spithout.
“We will continue to discuss and act on what more can be done on crew connectivity by all parties in the days and weeks ahead,” he explained. “We already have a working group with ISWAN and a number of charities to support seafarers as much as we can during this time.”