Op-Ed: Connectivity is Key for Crew Wellbeing During COVID-19 Outbreak

Image courtesy Inmarsat

Published Mar 26, 2020 6:42 PM by Ronald Spithout

As the leading provider of maritime VSAT and L-Band services at sea, Inmarsat is alert to the direct connection between coronavirus and surging demand for crew voice call and data services. As elsewhere, anxiety levels at sea have been on the rise with the spread of COVID-19.

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.

In February, Inmarsat enabled free of charge additional call time for users of our ChatCard voice services for crew. All ship managers 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.

Inmarsat also provides medical advice and assistance free of charge to seafarers over Fleet One, FleetBroadband and F77 services - anywhere, anytime and for anybody in need. We have also prioritized telemedicine as an area for service development with our application partners, at no cost to owners or the crew.

However, 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. In recent weeks, Inmarsat has also been working with a number of shipowners to find other ways of subsidising increasing bandwidth demands from vessels. Soon we will announce further incentives that our wholesale partners can choose to use to provide additional support for crew using our services.

During the current pandemic, it  is worth noting that people working ashore can sometimes focus on secondary issues when they talk about crew welfare and well-being in today’s connected world. The Royal Holloway, University of London "Navigating Everyday Connectivities at Sea" report, commissioned by Inmarsat in collaboration with the Sailors’ Society, illuminated patterns in behaviour that directly linked connectivity and welfare.

This report found that, as soon as a ship comes within range of a terrestrial network, seafarers use their mobile phone regardless of time of day and whether they are or are not working. Where seafarers had to ration their allowance, the researchers found it could mean that domestic issues were not resolved, adding to personal anxiety. One went so far as to say that "the only thing more important than connectivity is food." A seafarer working on the high seas worrying about those at home is unlikely to be focused.

The research also found that, when denied connectivity, crewmembers can be ingenious in finding work arounds: respect for crew welfare is all the more imperative in difficult times to avoid risks to a ship’s cyber security.

Inmarsat has sought to improve crew connectivity using the "Fleet Hotspot" Wi-Fi 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.

As COVID-19 unfolds, much more will certainly need to be done to work more closely with shipowners, managers and the master on board to ensure crews get access to the packages available. In addition, earlier this week, 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.

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, and we already have a working group with ISWAN and a number of charities to support seafarers as much as we can during this time. 

We need everyone to embrace the challenges and work together on these initiatives. The responsibility doesn’t fall solely on the satellite operator or welfare association at this time - we’re all in this together. 

Ronald Spithout is president of Inmarsat Maritime.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.