There are uncertain times ahead for maritime connectivity as the global shipping industry tries to recover from the global coronavirus pandemic and starts testing autonomous operations, says Telenor Satellite data services divisional director Jan Hetland
US educator and businessman Stephen Covey once said, “if there is one thing that is certain in business, it is uncertainty", and against the current backdrop of fluctuating fortunes for the global shipping, cruise and ferry markets, he was not too far off the point.
But we must always believe that out of the economic despondency and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there will always be change.
Change that will not only shape the way we do business, but open up new avenues and opportunities for companies and sectors to exploit in the months and years ahead, including in passenger ship communications.
Positive change could not come quick enough for the cruise and ferry sectors which have been hard hit by the pandemic and there is a feeling that cruise lines will not see any return to normality until sometime next year.
The future for the ferry sector, however, is a little clearer with many believing we could see passenger ferries starting to operate again in Q3 2020.
And there are promising signs of some things returning to normal within the next two months, with a potential opening-up in June of northern European and Scandinavian ferry services. This will have knock-on impact on the use of satellite communications for passenger connectivity.
We have seen a slight spike in data usage per end-user on the ferries which have been operating throughout the pandemic. This may be because the reduction in onboard entertainment options available to those passengers leads them to use connectivity services instead.
And when it comes to seeking silver linings in these dark clouds, we are detecting opportunities in the high-end yachting market where wealthy people use their yachts as a means of staying isolated while still enjoying a holiday.
I suppose to some extent this increase in demand will also depend on an ability to travel so there will be a reliance on airports and ports also being open, but there are signs of things slowly returning to normal in the yachting sector.
But this desire for market certainty will almost certainly drive a need for greater efficiencies in the industry, and with it a greater reliance on smart technology. To what extent this will lead to greater vessel autonomy remains to be seen.
The internet of things continues to be a tool that quite a lot of companies say they still have not figured out yet. As shipping turns more to automation and increased control from the shore there will be a boost in demand for communication.
Trials of autonomous units in Norwegian waters are ongoing but it will take time to pass the necessary international legislation through IMO. The consensus that autonomy will start with short-range vessels, say on small ferries operating between two small ports or a cargo ship plying between a petrochemical or fertiliser plant and an adjoining harbour, is a valid one.
But it will play second fiddle to seeking greener eco-friendly solutions for the shipping industry and the acceleration in demand for better battery power.
The question also remains, how agile is the industry in meeting the demands of a market intent on embracing autonomy, digitalisation and smart technology? I suspect the market is a bit too fragmented.
There are certainly some segments of the market that are agile and forward-thinking and willing to explore, while at the same time we know there are plenty of shipping companies that are extremely conservative and cost-conscious. We will see digital leaders and laggards for some time to come.
This is all happening against a changing political and economic backdrop. We are all keen to know how the world will finally emerge from this Covid-19 situation. Will global trade pick up again and will we return to normal or will there be a new normal? Now that is what I call uncertainty.