Coronavirus has amplified the need to provide sufficient fast connectivity to seafarers, many of whom have been stranded at sea for more than a year
200,000 seafarers are still virtually trapped on ships, with their deployment on board extended, unable to return home despite initiatives by the industry to enable international key worker travel.
At its peak in 2020, more than 400,000 mariners were stuck aboard ships beyond the expiry of their contracts’ expected time for a crew change, due to Covid-induced travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.
I write with experience of working longer than expected on offshore drilling rigs in the North Sea due to missed crew changes, how this is demoralising, increasing feelings of isolation and homesickness.
That was before the development of VSAT. Connectivity technology in today’s shipping industry enables seafarers to communicate with home through various applications and to keep abreast of the latest news and entertainment through online media. But only if shipowners and operators are willing to invest in VSAT.
At least something is happening to improve crew morale. Over 750 maritime organisations have signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change outlining that action is needed to resolve the crew-change crisis.
The Neptune Declaration urges the implementation of four main actions to address the crisis. Recognising seafarers as key workers and giving them priority access to Covid-19 vaccines; establishing and implementing gold standard health protocols based on existing best practices; increasing collaboration between ship operators and charterers to facilitate crew changes; and ensuring air connectivity between key maritime hubs for seafarers.
Some of these actions are being implemented, but a fifth should be included – ensure there is connectivity for seafarers stranded on ships.
There are still tens of thousands of ships worldwide without fast connectivity or sufficient bandwidth for crew internet access and social media applications. This needs to change – and will do as lower-cost VSAT technology is introduced.
Key to this is investment in high-throughput satellites (HTSs) and low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations.
The satellite industry is in transformation with software-defined, mass-produced satellites and network-of-networks proliferating across all segments of the space economy – unlocking new use-cases and new end-users.
These will bring higher Ku-band and Ka-band capacity worldwide, with competition to
reduce costs and deliver better connectivity to seafarers.
They also deliver more power, opening VSAT to new maritime markets by enabling smaller antenna hardware to be deployed on vessels.
In reaction to these trends, antenna manufacturers have introduced terminal hardware for both HTS and LEO satellite communications.
Intellian is developing an antenna for OneWeb LEO, Cobham Satcom is working with Viasat on HTS Ka-band connectivity and SpaceX has requested federal approval for LEO maritime terminals.
These will challenge existing Ka-band and Ku-band VSAT over geostationary satellites.
Inmarsat has taken this challenge head on with its investment in ultra-HTS Global Xpress satellites and SES is investing in O3b mPower medium-Earth orbit satellites. Other owners are investing in HTS for Ku-band. Meanwhile, KVH Industries has introduced TracPhone V30, its smallest VSAT antenna with an integrated modem, for smaller commercial vessel installations.
There are more than 30,000 vessels connected through VSAT, and the sector is expected to generate US$4Bn in 2023, with over 35,000 vessels in the club.
VSAT deployments are expected to continue to accelerate to deliver the connectivity our seafarers deserve, and to alleviate their feelings of isolation when they remain stranded at sea during a third wave of global Covid infections, and before they are vaccinated.