Advances in satellite communications is enabling container ship owners to improve crew welfare and operational efficiency, writes Martyn Wingrove
Container ship owners are investing in broadband communications on their ships to improve operations and crew welfare. But, the sector as a whole lags behind tankers, offshore vessels and passenger shipping in providing crew communications and internet connectivity.
Investment in VSAT and larger packages of L-band, such as Inmarsat’s FleetBroadband and Iridium’s Certus, has increased the level of ship-to-shore communications for crew. However, only 57% of seafarers working on container ships reported they had any form of onboard communications, according to the Crew Connectivity 2018 Survey, produced by Futurenautics Maritime in March 2018.
This compares with 61% of seafarers on tankers, 70% on gas carriers, 72% on passenger ships and 81% on offshore vessels having almost-always access to onboard communications. This survey also highlighted internet access, which is not always available and is often bandwidth-controlled. More seafarers have some type onboard internet access in 2018 than they did in 2015.
On container ships, 65% of seafarers have internet access, compared with just 25% in 2015. However, of those working on tankers, 80% have access to online services in 2018.
Report authors estimated the 2017 worldwide market value for crew communications as US$94M for container shipping. This is based on the amount seafarers pay monthly for communications, which on average is between US$99 and US$105 for satellite connectivity and between US$75 and US$92 for communications in coastal waters or while ashore. This is based on a global fleet of 5,100 ships and an estimation that there are 102,150 seafarers working on container ships.
“Crew welfare is becoming more important for recruitment and retention because seafarers do not want to go on ships that are without the internet”
KVH Industries was one of the supporters of this survey and report. Its co-founder and chief executive Martin Kits van Heyningen explained the importance of communications to crew welfare when he spoke to Container Shipping & Trade. Seafarers are requesting more connectivity on ships to access online services, especially social media.
“Crew welfare is becoming more important for recruitment and retention because seafarers do not want to go on ships that are without the internet,” he explained.
“There is momentum for adopting VSAT and more vessel owners are embracing faster broadband.” Many are replacing their ageing L-band satellite communications equipment – which can be 10-year-old technology – with VSAT hardware and services.
Shipmanager ER Schiffahrt chose KVH to upgrade satellite communications on a fleet of 60 container ships and dry bulk carriers to access high-throughput satellites (HTSs) when ships are under the Ku-band spot beams.
Upgrading these ships to VSAT involves installing KVH’s 60-cm TracPhone V7-HTS antenna and associated below-deck equipment. ER Schiffahrt has subscribed to KVH’s AgilePlans connectivity-as-a-service package for these ships.
Mr Kits van Heyningen said shipowners can benefit from VSAT through greater volumes of data transmissions for analysis to reduce fuel consumption, improve navigational safety and deliver onboard training to crew.
This will accelerate in the next five years as more vessel operators adopt internet of things technology. “VSAT enables applications, such as performance and condition monitoring, and is the conduit for hull performance information during transits and for predicting equipment failure and keeping onboard systems’ software updated,” he said.
KVH offers C-band and Ku-band over its mini-VSAT broadband service and provides media content through its IP MobileCast multicasting service over satellites to ships.
Marlink is another provider of VSAT services to container shipping. Its president for maritime, Tore Morten Olsen, believes that crew welfare must be a primary concern for the industry.
“Lack of communication with the outside world can contribute significantly to a decline in the mental health of crew members, especially considering that many of them will spend over half the year away from their families in total,” Mr Olsen told CST.
“Lack of communication with the outside world can contribute significantly to a decline in the mental health of crew members”
Marlink has expanded its crew welfare portfolio by releasing a number of key initiatives using its XChange centralised IT and communications management platform.
“We have always focused on making it simpler and more cost-effective for our customers to offer reliable communications for crew on board,” said Mr Olsen. “Our Universal Card makes calling home or accessing the internet easy using a pre-paid approach.”
Higher bandwidth enables box ship operators to provide more digital services to seafarers. Markink offers XChange Telemed, XChange Media and XChange BYOD (bring your own device) for ships with wifi “all of which offer new facilities for crew’s physical and mental health, and entertainment during downtime,” said Mr Olsen.
XChange Telemed is a fully integrated telemedicine service and a cost-effective way for shipping companies to manage regular and emergency medical consultations. It supports the health of seafarers and passengers, and reduces costs incurred by medical emergencies, said Mr Olsen.
XChange Media provides media streaming to crews in local languages. It includes on-demand content for crew to view on their own smartphones, tablets, laptops and communal televisions.
NSSLGlobal offers its CrewVision service as a media multicast service. This includes a world news feed refreshed throughout the day, alongside the latest films, documentaries and prime TV shows, said NSSLGlobal marine commercial manager Andrew Sirkett. Delivering such content has become “vital in retaining a happy crew for the essential running of an efficient operation” he said.
“While crew demands have been rising, budget conscious shipowners have in the past been reluctant to invest in such technology mainly because of the high up-front cost of additional video streaming hardware on board and the amount of capacity needed for crew’s on-demand video streaming,” he explained.
CrewVision is intelligently and efficiently connected to NSSLGlobal’s Satlink VSAT network to provide high definition content over satellite without disrupting operational traffic or the crew’s internet access, thereby optimising onboard user experience. “Even if the satellite airtime package on board is small, there are no limitations to the number of crew members viewing different video content simultaneously.”
Antennas are a vital hardware aspect of ship communications. Technology advances mean more powerful antenna can be installed without increasing their footprint. Cobham Satcom uses software to automatically calibrate its Sailor range of Ku-band and Ka-band antenna so that the transmit power is set to maximum levels.
“Power levels are controlled dynamically, by the VSAT modem or hub, in real-time,” said Cobham Satcom director of maritime broadband Jens Ewerling. “End-users can experience faster, more reliable internet when compared with the same reflector dish size on a non-software-controlled antenna.”
Software control means Cobham can offer a Sailor 60 cm VSAT for ship connectivity instead of a 1 m version (Sailor 900 VSAT). “Most people believe they need a bigger antenna to be able to pay less for services, but that model is changing with HTSs,” said Mr Ewerling.
Advances in satellite and antenna technology, along with more available bandwidth and flexible pricing is enabling container ship owners to improve crew welfare so that more seafarers will always have access to communications in the future.
Norddeutsche Reederei upgrades satcoms
Norddeutsche Reederei is upgrading communications on its fleet of container ships to improve operational efficiency and crew welfare services. It is installing VSAT and bandwidth management systems on up to 50 ships, to enable the owner to run business applications to improve its operations and the navigational safety of its ships.
It is installing Navarino Infinity Cube communications management units and associated tools across the fleet, which ranges from 1,430 TEU ships to 8,814 TEU vessels.
Deployment of VSAT and bandwidth management will allow Norddeutsche Reederei to run applications, such as planned maintenance schemes, equipment purchasing and electronic navigational chart updating.