With satellite communications technology making a lot of progress and more capacity covering the ocean, we have seen more commercial operators embracing VSAT technology for both business applications and crew welfare.
One would believe that this additional welfare would have pleased the crew, which can now enjoy IP connectivity to use their favorite social media applications and surf their favorite websites – an improvement over the days when crew welfare on ships was mainly limited to phone calls. Well, it’s a paradox, but many times this is not the case. In fact, it’s sometimes worse than before. Why?
One reason is that when crewmembers are told they will have Internet access, they expect the exact same experience as at home. Most VSAT connections at sea are around 256 Kbps download speed, whereas at home, people often have up to 100 Mbps download speed, through cable modem, DSL, ADSL, or fiber optic technology – for merely USD $40/month. At home, there may be one or two people using the Internet; on a vessel, there are between 15 to 20 people using the same link onboard, so it is therefore natural to have a slow speed compared to what a person has at home. The nature of the link is also different with higher latency and jitter due to satellite communications (the signal travels two times 36,000 km before landing on earth).
The other issues are the applications themselves that the crewmembers are using at home and that they wish to use at sea. Skype is a good example. It allows people to stay in touch with their loved ones while far away, and most importantly, it’s free. Well, not at sea. The first reason is that while bandwidth is abundant and practically free onshore, it’s a limited resource at sea. Also, Skype was initially developed for home use assuming at least unlimited fast ADSL connections. Therefore it was designed to work with low latency. It was also not specifically designed to save bandwidth, since it’s abundant onshore. Because the latency is much longer over satellite and because the bandwidth is still a limited resource at sea, Skype doesn’t provide the same experience when used over satellite than on shore, leading to complaints from the users. Many VSAT providers either block the application or charge for it. Here again, the crew is not happy. Skype is considered a free application and most shipping companies are reluctant to pay for it.
KVH TracPhone V-series systems and mini-VSAT Broadband service offer unrestricted plans that allow use of Skype. From the shipping perspective, it is also important to note that Skype is by nature a hybrid peer-to-peer application and therefore does carry a lot of security risks. That is the reason why a lot of corporations block the application onshore. The issue for the crew is that for them, work is also home while at sea.
In addition to Skype, crewmembers often like to visit popular websites like YouTube, which is ranked the 3rd most visited website worldwide. It is also important to know that 50% of the Internet traffic onshore is now video. Unfortunately, video is the heaviest data to carry and for satellite communications providers, there definitely isn’t enough capacity yet to carry so much data. For that reason, most VSAT providers have also blocked this type of traffic, which leads to further frustration from the crew. KVH does offer unrestricted plans that allow video streaming.
Crew welfare is an important issue for every maritime operator and mariner today. In Part 2 of this blog article, see tips for how to retain your crew and make sure they will be happy with crew welfare efforts.