Op-Ed: Connectivity needs to be affordable and abundant to transform seafarer wellbeing

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OneWeb highlights how accessible and flexible enterprise-grade connectivity will support seafarers’ wellbeing and training opportunities. (Pictured: Richard Smale)

By Richard Smale, Maritime Specialist, OneWeb

Despite the investment in new technologies and the acceleration of a digital era for shipping, many vessels can still only provide basic communication access for seafarers. Richard Smale, Maritime Specialist, OneWeb highlights how accessible and flexible enterprise-grade connectivity will support seafarers’ wellbeing and training opportunities.

Most of us take Facetiming relatives or streaming a movie on Netflix for granted. Yet, in our digitalised society, these simple actions are often impossible for seafarers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this divide between connectivity on land and on sea became stark when many seafarers were trapped on vessels well past the end of their contracts.

For over a year, many seafarers had no method of contacting family which simply required access to the internet. Today, shore-leave remains limited as a knock-on effect of the pandemic. Whether out at sea, or docked at port, vessels without high-grade connectivity can only offer limited communications options for crew while away from home which significantly impacts wellbeing, morale and engagement at work.

High quality connectivity—that is not only fast but can handle high volumes of data—can provide a gateway to improving crew welfare and career development without compromising the ongoing digitalisation of vessel operations. For example, a study by Yale University found that 7% of medical incidents require evacuation of crew members due to lack of medical expertise onboard. This could be avoided by enabling greater use of essential telemedicine services, thereby safeguarding crews’ health whilst reducing avoidable costs and unplanned disruption. This also applies to accessing other apps such as those to support crews’ wellbeing, personal financial management or entertainment.

Commercially, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity can help to unlock competitive advantages; both in relation to improving business processes and operations and for recruiting and retaining the best talent. Shipowners are investing in new technologies on board ships, from voyage optimization software to emission reduction technologies to support the transition to more sustainable shipping. However, these are being hampered by the effectiveness of current connectivity solutions.

Day-to-day operations also currently pose frustrations for crews as files provided by shore teams are often unable to be downloaded onboard due to limited connectivity infrastructure. Abundant and affordable connectivity supports ship-to-shore communications, data transmissions, navigation and the critical safety of the crew and vessel. Being better connected will also enable more advanced crew training to be delivered while at sea, ensuring seafarers continuously update their skills in today’s rapidly evolving industry.

At the Maritime Labor Convention’s Special Tripartite Committee (STC) meeting in May 2022, delegates agreed to create a right to connectivity for seafarers, including internet access. However, this access to the internet needs to be affordable for both the shipowner and the crew. With LEO satellites providing low latency connectivity, shipowners will be able to provide affordable and abundant data to their crew while also ensuring that large data volumes can flow from ship to shore. This means a better balance is in sight for operators to manage both crew and operational data usage.

Enterprise-grade, affordable connectivity provides a suite of holistic benefits for crew while having the speed and latency to catalyse increasingly sophisticated operations. The technologies are already available to transform maritime operations but to truly transform operational efficiency, sustainability and profitability, abundant and affordable connectivity will be key. Connectivity isn’t a luxury on board, it’s a human right and an operational necessity.   

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