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A quiet revolution is underway in internet access onboard ship

1 May 2018

A new study shows more seafarers are getting connected at sea – and that onboard internet access is an increasingly important issue when choosing who to work for. STEVEN KENNEDY reports on the research…

Back in 2016, the United Nations resolved that access to the internet is to be considered a basic human right.

No right-minded person would question that principle on land; yet for many of those at sea, connectivity remains something of an alien concept. It’s a position Nautilus remains extremely keen to address.

The Union launched its own Crew Communications strategic campaign after running a survey on the issue in 2016 which found that despite 88% of members saying they worked onboard ships with internet access, only 57% could use it for personal emails and only 34% could use social media.

'We ultimately want to see “at home” levels of connectivity for our members and seafarers everywhere,' says the Union's head of strategy Debbie Cavaldoro.

'That means free wi-fi onboard ships and in ports. With good policies covering usage and cyber security training, there is no reason why seafarers shouldn’t be able to use the internet off-duty in the same way as those in shore-based occupations.'

Happily, in the two years since the Nautilus report was published, we have been starting to see indications that things are getting better – as demonstrated in the new Futurenautics Crew Connectivity 2018 Survey Report, which concludes that more seafarers than ever before have access to connectivity and communications.

Having surveyed almost 6,000 serving seafarers,Futurenautics chief executive Roger Adamson presented the results of the research last month to an invited audience at London's Shard building.

In 2012, when Futurenautics started looking at these issues, the overwhelming interest was in communications in the context of crew welfare, he noted. 'But since then – as the digital revolution has gathered pace and the industry has acknowledged the pivotal enabling role connectivity plays in every aspect of their operations – the question-set has expanded.'

With this in mind, the latest Futurenautics research looked at areas ranging from cyber security and training to which aspects of technology are opportunities and which are threats. Futurenautics estimates the combined value of the shore-based and sea-based crew communications market at more than US$2.4bn surprisingly, most claimed they see new technology as an opportunity. Some 68% said they saw positives in the move to automation, whilst big data and analytics (69%) and predictive maintenance (73%) also gained positive feedback.

The biggest threats were seen as the use of unmanned ships (48%), robotics (38%) and artificial intelligence (38%). Additionally, more than half of all seafarers had seen at least one element of their role automated in the last two years – although 98% said this had had a positive impact on their work.

Futurenautics stated that seafarers, in general,thought these technologies presented far more opportunities than threats to their roles in future. However, the survey didn’t ask why they felt this was the case. The cost of staying connected also reared its head. Feedback suggested that as much as a quarter of a seafarer’s monthly salary could be spent on keeping connected with friends and family whilst at sea.

The study showed seafarers worldwide spending, on average, between US$89.46 (seafarers from Europe, the Middle East and Africa) and US$132.13 (south central Asia) on communication whilst at sea. When this is compared to basic monthly wage for an AB (US$614) as stipulated by the International Labour Organisation, it means that south central Asian seafarers earning the average could be spending around 22% of their salary on staying connected. This figure then rises to around 37% when including time spent ashore or in coastal waters. Another measure of seafarer income is the minimum wage set by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

'I think the ITF minimum wage for an able-bodied seafarer is around US$600 to $700 a month,' said Mr Adamson. 'This means that this [the expenditure of seafarers on connectivity] is around 10% to 14%, or even more, of their disposable income a month.

‘I don’t know how that compares to people ashore,’he continued.

'People ashore pay for their phone and use of the internet, but I’d guess that wasn’t in the region of US$180.'

In fact, the report highlighted that there had been a decrease in the levels of free internet access provided to seafarers, from 49% in 2015 – when the last Futurenautics survey took place – to 45% now. The report notes that the difficulty of obtaining a global roaming SIM card, a cheap satellite phone and free in-port wi-fi 'remains a source of frustration for seafarers'.

And interestingly, when the researchers explored the relative importance of crew connectivity using a seafarer version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it didn't rank that highly. 'We were told that first and foremost, seafarers want to be paid on time,' Mr Adamson said. 'They want employment benefits like healthcare and family services, then they want training and high quality food and only then, once they’ve got those, comes access to the internet.' Yet when asked if connectivity influenced which company a seafarer would choose to work forcompany a seafarer would choose to work for, 75% stated that it did have an influence.

'This figure is slightly higher than in previous surveys, and 92% of those who responded that connectivity had an infl uence said that it had a very strong or strong impact on where they would choose to work,' Mr Adamson said. A panel of five industry experts – some with backgrounds in commercial telecommunications – gave their views on the state of connectivity at sea, which varied quite considerably. 'Seafarers are just normal human beings,' said Phil Parry, chairman of the recruitment and HR firm Spinnaker Global.

'They need access to this technology to make their lives better. We often talk about seafarers being on the receiving end of our charity. Yet they are a professional, well-trained bunch, running multimillion-dollar bits of kit.'

The panel also considered whether increased technology onboard is adding to social isolation – and whether seafarers retreating to their cabins to speak to loved ones are missing out on team bonding with workmates.

With good policies covering usage and cyber-security training, seafarers should be able to use the internet off-duty as they would ashore.
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'The counter-argument to that is that we have to treat seafarers as adults,' said Roger Harris, executive director of the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network.

'What about privacy? What about it being their own time?' 'I think it’s about accepting what we have,' continued Mr Parry. 'First of all, we are frightened by new technology, then we complain about it, then we accept it. It would be very easy to use the analogy of alcohol and say that you wouldn't want people drinking in their cabins on their own, therefore we're doing the same with internet connectivity, but it’s not as simple as that.'

At the head of the list for expenditure on communications at sea is the passenger sector, with a market value of US$337m – ahead of tankers (US$282m), general cargo (US$234m) and bulk carriers (US$221m On top of these staggering fi gures is a key headline: Futurenautics points out that the number of seafarers who can now use the internet at sea (to some extent) has increased by over half a million since its last survey, and those who can access it for free have increased by over 200,000.

With plans underway to introduce even more new technology onboard, seafarers were quizzed on whether they viewed these technological improvements as a threat to their jobs over the next five years, or as an opportunity.

'This latest crew connectivity survey echoes many of the findings of the Nautilus crew communications research,' concluded Ms Cavaldoro.

'More seafarers are now able to get online, but there are still large gaps in provision and too many seafarers are paying too much to keep in contact with their families.'

  • to read the full report, visit www.futurenautics.com.
  • to hear more about what Nautilus International is doing to address the issue, visit campaigns.

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