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Life at sea vs. life in space: Which crews are more connected?

Sep 30, 2016 02:11 PM

Pat Rossi illustration/Source: Futurenautics Research

Mariners, especially those in bluewater service, may feel like they’re on a different planet when it comes to Internet access and communicating with families ashore. But who is really better connected: a crew in the middle of the ocean, or one that is orbiting in space?

“When mariners are on land we get used to connectivity, so going out to sea is a big shift,” said Klaus Luhta, chief of staff for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots. “For the coastwise, tugs, Great Lakes and river vessels, it’s not so bad, but the deep-sea voyages are a challenge.”

In 2015, Futurenautics Research conducted the Crew Connectivity Survey to establish what crews think about communications at sea. After analyzing responses from more than 3,000 mariners from over 30 countries — with the assistance of major organizations including BIMCO, ISWAN, InterManager, PTC and CrewToo — Futurenautics delivered its assessment.

Among the results: 58 percent of mariners said they almost always had access to communications, 35 percent sometimes had access and 7 percent never had access.

Voice calls via satellite phone were the most widely available method of communication, with 79 percent of respondents having access to this technology. In some sectors, this figure drops to just 70 percent. Only 43 percent had Internet access, while 42 percent had access to text-only emails. Twenty-eight percent had access to onboard GSM, a digital mobile telephony system. Only 24 percent had access to SMS text messaging.

The Maritime Labor Convention of 2006 advises that ship operators should give crews “reasonable access to ship-to-shore telephone communications and email and Internet facilities, where available, with any charges for the use of these services being reasonable in amount.”

Some mariners accustomed to constant connectivity shoreside seem to be disappointed with the lack of communication at sea. According to the survey, the majority believe crew communication has improved since 2006, but 39 percent said it had not improved since the Labor Convention was introduced and 3 percent said it was worse.

By comparison, astronauts in the International Space Station, orbiting 249 miles above the Earth and moving at 17,000 mph, may be better connected than some crews. Since 2010, astronauts on the ISS have had personal Internet access, but it’s slower than terrestrial dial-up. That means it’s useful for Twitter and email, but not full-bore browsing. Each time an astronaut clinks a link, that request travels nearly 22,000 miles to a network of geosynchronous satellites, then to a ground receiver and back to the astronaut’s tablet or laptop. Astronauts have the ability to make voice and videophone calls via computer. These services are provided at no cost.

At sea, by contrast, available communication services and costs vary by ship and ship operator. Given the Futurenautics survey results, astronauts are better connected than most sailors at sea.

Providing connectivity at little to no extra cost for seafarers could help with recruiting and retention challenges.

“Fewer people might leave the industry if they knew they could keep in better touch with their families,” Luhta said. “It would be easier to be at sea for a few months, and we wouldn’t lose as much of the work force as we are now.”

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