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Worth the Cost

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Image courtesy Inmarsat

By MarEx 2019-01-04 12:45:23

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2018 edition.)

[By Charlie Bartlett]

For many decades, shipping arranged all its operations to rely on little or no connectivity. Performance was measured by noon reports. The crew, virtually cut off from shore, were lucky to get pay-per-minute calls over sat-phones.

But today’s youngest ratings grew up in a world with omnipresent broadband Internet. Family and friends are only a WhatsApp message or Skype call away. To sever this connection as soon as one steps onto a ship is not just a recruitment disaster. It can have mental health ramifications as well.

Even film and TV apps are coming to be considered a basic proposition at sea. Tore Morten Olsen, president of Marlink Maritime, believes this manifesto can be distilled to a definitive number. “To be considered a serious player in the merchant sector,” he says, “256kbs per person is really the bare minimum of capacity.”

Crew welfare is unquestionably the biggest driver for increased data availability. In connecting with their families, crew use considerably more data than any shipboard process. Satcom providers agree this need will increase in lockstep with land connectivity. Put simply, Olsen says, “They will never have enough.”

Connectivity and Morale

It might come as a surprise that even the apocryphal curmudgeons of maritime are willing to provide crew with decent Internet. But experts point to a growing understanding of seafarers’ needs. Outside the U.S., crews are small and multinational. European owners often pair Filipino ratings with East-European officers, for example, making it difficult for comradeship to form. Small crews and shift patterns further limit social interaction between crewmates. In this context, connectivity with their own communities ashore can be a lifeline.

“We are noticing a definite shift from the opinion that access to communications can disrupt or distract from work at sea,” says Alex Stewart, COO of Satcom Global. “Ship operators are becoming more accepting of when and how crew communicate at sea. For example, with the increase of BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) access we are seeing much more use of chat platforms such as WhatsApp and Viber, which were traditionally restricted.”

He adds that “Recent research has shown that access to reliable communications positively contributes to the mental well-being of crew, operational efficiency and safety at sea. We do still find, however, that ship managers and owners want to be able to control certain aspects of crew communications on board.”

Satcom Global’s Aura VSAT portfolio is designed to do just that: “With Aura, we consult with customers on network requirements and onboard Wi-Fi set-up as well as provide online tools to manage the service,” says Stewart. Our IPSignature 4 platform, a key component of Aura, allows shore-based users to manage both quality of service and the wider bandwidth allocation and to implement crew network setup on either a company, vessel or individual level – allocating crew data, setting access permissions, whitelisting and blacklisting.”

Particularly for millennials, a jarring disparity between the connectivity they have grown up with and minimal connectivity aboard ship can be particularly isolating. “One of the first three questions a seafarer asks is, ‘What’s the Internet like?’” says Mark Woodhead, Senior Vice President of Training & Content at satcom provider KVH.

“On large fleets, rolling out VSAT takes time,” he adds. “Crew will sign longer contracts so they can stay on a vessel with broadband and will clamor to get onto the vessels that have connectivity. Owners and operators are already making the decision that having the best crew and keeping them happy is worth the cost.”

Connecting to the Internet of Things

While crew welfare is the greatest driver for satcom by order of magnitude, it’s not the only one. Shipowners are realizing major cost-savings from Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Today, that technology monitors a wide range of operating parameters using feeds of shipboard data. But tomorrow it will squeeze better performance from individual machines and systems by optimizing how they work together.

“Many companies are getting Internet on board primarily for their crew and then using it for operations – rather than it being driven the other way around,” says Woodhead. “Some charge crew by the megabyte, getting them to fund it, but many fund it themselves.”

In contrast with crew welfare, IoT data has a minimal footprint – 64kbs, Marlink’s Olsen estimates, assuming 6,000 sensors on board – and is therefore less costly. “In a [land-based] data package there is quite a lot of information transferred simply because you have unlimited bandwidth – indeed, most software is developed that way,” he says. “So it has headers and endings and so on.”

Marlink’s XChange Cloud service, on the other hand, tweaks data to minimize bandwidth use. “Using XChange Cloud, we optimize throughput so that only that data that contains the information is transmitted, removing the routing and so on,” Olsen explains. “That makes bandwidth significantly lower than if you were just putting everything straight into the cloud.”

More must be done for IoT to meet its true potential, however, and Inmarsat – operator of the geostationary Global Xpress Ka-band satellite network – teamed up this year with Danelec Marine, which manufactures voyage data recorder (VDR) systems, to offer one such solution. VDRs, shipping’s “black box,” record data points from various ship systems for potential recovery after an accident or from a sunken vessel. But Danelec wants more from VDR systems. As a centralized data-collection platform, it could be put to better use.

In perhaps the ultimate example, Danelec and Inmarsat have jointly created Fleet Data. VDR data is pre-processed and uploaded to a cloud-based database. When accessed from the owner’s side, this database features a dashboard and Application Process Interface (API).

“Each vessel is different,” explains Danelec’s CEO, Hans Ottosen. “In aviation, you have a series of planes which are all the same. But on ships you have different equipment from different manufacturers with different communication protocols and standards. That makes IoT difficult.”

Using the VDR, however, takes much of the guesswork out of corralling data from disparate shipboard systems – or, more technically, the IoT. “Fleet Data will overcome key difficulties of aggregating vessel data onboard and getting it efficiently ashore,” says Inmarsat’s Business Development Vice President, Stefano Poli. “Ship operators and managers can access, control and exploit their own data or make that data available to third-party applications, as required, via a secure platform that is fully scalable and fleet-wide.”

Redressing the Balance

Meeanwhile, KVH is pioneering Agile Plans, a connectivity-as-a-service platform offering Ku-band connectivity with L-band backup and no commitment or capex. “KVH is an end-to-end satcom supplier,” says Woodhead. “We manufacture our own equipment, manage our own network, install, support and deliver airtime. Agile Plans covers these in a single-entry monthly fee. At any point, you can send it back and stop paying for it.”

Woodhead emphasizes the return on investment from satcom services: “The tipping point price-wise was only reached a few years ago, but connectivity is quickly shifting from a service to a utility. The cost is miniscule – triple figures, maybe 1-2 percent of vessel opex. We delivered more services in the first half of this year than in the whole of 2017, and of course we’re not the only game in town.”

He adds that “The majority of data supports crew welfare. But in the future that will change. The crew welfare side will only grow. But the operational side will too, and quickly. I wouldn’t want to speculate it will reach 50-50, but it could be very close.” – MarEx

Charlie Bartlett is a freelance journalist covering developments in the merchant marine and offshore sectors. This is his first appearance in the magazine.

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