Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out
Get this document free

Ship-shore communications


									MAIN HEAD
Keeping in touch with home

There are various initiatives to make it easier for crew to call home

Seafaring can be lonely, boring and depressing. Whilst becoming a seafarer used to be
a great way to see the world, now it’s just a great way to see the sea. As cargoes are
loaded, unloaded and processed increasingly quickly, port calls become shorter and
shorter. Being a seafarer does not have the glamour it once had.

There are many social problems associated with life at sea, including abuse of alcohol,
drugs and mental illness. Seafarers only have contact with each other and are isolated
from other family and friends.

It’s easy to see how communications facilities onboard can dramatically increase
quality of life for seafarers. They can hear their babies cry down the telephone and
send e-mails to their girlfriends; or they can just chat away to other seafarers.

The problem, of course, is the cost; ship-shore telephone calls still cost around $3 a
minute, and Inmarsat does not yet have any maritime service where you pay for the
amount of data you send; this means that web surfing from a ship also costs a horrific
$3 a minute, and that’s for a connection 14 per cent of the speed you can expect from
a normal dial-up modem to your home. It isn’t very attractive.

There are also problems with the equipment. Persuading a shipping company to allow
seafarers to use its main communications system for personal telephone calls and e-
mails is difficult. The idea of a seafarer crashing the electronic chart display system
by downloading a virused pornographic picture is not a very attractive one, even if the
systems can theoretically be set up so that this could never happen.

But the picture isn’t all depressing. E-mails can be sent very cheaply from ship to
shore if they are batched together. A 30 second telephone call, costing $1 over
Inmarsat mini-M, can still mean an enormous amount. And the costs are still

Some shipping companies, including P&O Nedlloyd, are giving their crew free access
to e-mail. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has an initiative
with Stratos and GN Comtext, to encourage shipowners to fit crew calling facilities
onboard vessels. As recruiting seafarers gets increasingly difficult, shipping
companies will find themselves under increasing pressure to make it easier for them to
call home.

An interesting issue is how much investment in seafarer’s welfare will actually assist
in improving safety. A recent survey by the Seafarer’s International Research Centre
in Cardiff, UK, found that 80 per cent of all errors onboard vessels are due to
seafarers being tired or stressed. “The message is quite clear that shipowners and
manning agencies should pay more attention to manning issues,” says Timo
Lappalainen, administrative officer of the seafarer’s trust.
“The bottom line is behind this ship to shore stuff is that if you keep your seafarers
happy, they’re going to commit not that many mistakes in their business,” he says.

Different technologies

There are a number of different technologies available that shipowners can provide to
their crew to help make telephone calls and e-mails home.

Globe Wireless offers “GlobeCrew,” a tool to enable seafarers to send and receive e-
mails over the Globe Wireless digital radio communication network. Crew can open
accounts with Globe Wireless independently of the shipping company, so that the
shipping company does not have to deal with any billing or collecting money. The
messages are charged at $0.52 per kilobit.

Globe can install a special communications kiosk onboard the vessel, so seafarers can
send and receive messages in privacy, without using the vessel’s main
communications system.

A number of communications companies offer pre-paid calling cards for calls over
Inmarsat, including COMSAT, GloCall, Station 12 and Sait Radio Holland. GloCall
has developed special payphones running over Inmarsat-A, -B, -M or mini-M, which
can be fitted onboard vessels, to save shipping companies from the trouble of logging
phone calls that the crew make.

The International Transport Worker’s Federation

The International Transport Worker’s Federation, based in London, has an initiative to
encourage shipowners to fit communications equipment for seafarers, working
together with communications companies Stratos and GN Comtext. It will be working
together with them to build a distribution network for calling cards and encouraging
shipowners to fit terminals onboard their vessels.

After looking at various different products by different manufacturers, ITF chose last
November to put its weight behind Stratos/GN Comtext because it thought it could
give a longer commitment and because it was impressed with what the companies
have to offer.

The deal has been put together in time frames of 3 years. However ITF is keen to keep
its options open because it might find other service providers offering a service it
would like to add to the scheme.

The best aspect of the GN Comtext / Stratos service, says Timo Lappalainen,
administrative officer of the seafarer’s trust, is that it is possible to give seafarers
around the world a standard rate; as opposed to certain other deals which have been
offered by the LESOs, offering good rates by calling a certain part of the world at a
certain time, but raising the price at other times.

ITF is hoping that the cost of cellular phone calls will drop enough that they could
become a viable means for seafarers to make telephone calls from ports. Cellular
phones will only ever work up to 30 miles from coast, because the transmission range
is not that great. But it could still be a major boost for seafarers.

ITF went for this particular scheme, because it did not want to wait any longer for a
better or cheaper technology. “Instead of waiting 2 years for mobile phones to be
introduced, we said that it is our moral obligation to give seafarers what is available
right here, right now,” he comments.

“It was never in doubt that seafarers need this service,” comments Mr Lappalainen.
The biggest challenge was how to put it together. This whole project has been
dragging on quite a long time. We had our fingers crossed that some really good
technology would come our way. 6 months ago, we decided that we’ve had enough

The most important issue with providing a service, Mr Lappalainen says, is price.
“We want to see telephone rates at the lowest level,” he says.

ITF is committing $1.2m into the venture. The money will be invested into a new
subsidiary business, and used to establish distribution networks for pre-paid phone
cards; they will initially be available from 250 outlets to be eventually extended to
1500 outlets including seafarer’s centres and maritime welfare agencies.

The business also aims to encourage shipowners to install crew calling facilities
onboard vessels. Crew calling equipment will be made available on lease.

The management subsidiary will be based in London, staffed by people who have
much experience in dealing with maritime issues. “We have found someone with
background at Inmarsat and the IMO,” says Timo Lappalainen, administrative officer
of the seafarer’s trust.

The subsidiary company will be specifically looked-up as a money-making venture,
although it will need to understand the moral objectives of ITF. The role of the
subsidiary company will be most to look after the investment and to monitor the
scheme. It will earn revenues from sales of pre-paid calling cards.

The ITF’s money comes from an agreement it has with shipowners. Shipowners pay
the ITF $230 per seafarer per year employed on their vessels, which is intended to be
used “to protect the physical, spiritual and moral welfare of seafarers.”

The basis for the venture is Inmarsat mini-M terminals, which can be fitted in crew
quarters, enabling telephone calls to be made at $2-$3 a minute. Crucially, the crew
calling system is completely independent from the main vessel communications
system, running over Inmarsat-A or –B; there is no risk of crew communications
interfering with safety or operational communications.
Although mini-M does not have the complete global coverage of Inmarsat-B, the
coverage is adequate for most calls from vessels; the telephone calls are cheaper and
the equipment is much cheaper and simpler (an antenna you can fit in your hand,
rather than an enormous dish on the roof of the vessel.

Whilst e-mail can be much cheaper for seafarers, it still does not go the whole way;
seafarers still prefer a voice-based service. “They want to hear their babies down the
telephone,” says Mr Lappalainen. “Its not such a business secret.”

“The rate for phone calls over Inmarsat is $2-$3 a minute,” he comments. “The price
has been reduced by 50 per cent over the last few years. We believe that when the call
volumes increase the price will come down more. Chinese and Indonesian seafarers
will find it expensive for voice service.”

An interesting initiative is to produce a debit paying card to help seafarers pay for the
telephone calls. ITF has already formed a partnership with Bank of America to put
this together, helping seafarers to manage their finances.

Internet services for seafarers

So far, online services geared directly towards seafarers are limited. There are a
number of websites for seafarers, including and, both of which provide information and links to internet
resources; there is also the Nautical Institute site,, which provides a
large amount of information about training materials and accident reports.

One of the best seafarer recruitment sites is, an online
depository of details about seafarers required, or where seafarers can go to look for
employment. Another seafarer recruitment site, more geared to the cruise industry
centre, is

The development so far is still fairly limited, and this is mainly because seafarers have
limited access to the web. It would be great if an enormous variety of tools were
available, to help them to learn more about different issues, or to keep in contact with
other seafarers, but the cost of ship-shore communications is currently prohibitive.

Although there are an estimated 1.5 million seafarers at sea at any one time, providing
content services and news for these people is not a particularly easy task.

It is very unlikely that the seafarers themselves will pay for the services; they are not a
particularly wealthy group of people and normally have little access to financial

Seafarers also tend to move from ship to ship quite regularly, so it is not really
worthwhile them going through the time and effort of paying to set up to receive
electronic news services on one vessel only to have to move to another one with a
completely different set of seafarer communications facilities onboard.
A possible payment model for news services onboard vessels is if the shipping
company pays, as with the IMC “Crews News” service. The problem here is that only
a limited number of shipping companies are willing to provide this facility to the
crew; some take more of an interest in crew’s welfare than others.

Whilst it is true that the investment in providing Crews News onboard vessels is a
small one considering the possible upside of a much happier crew, many shipowners
are far more preoccupied with the task of finding a cargo for the ship than they are
with keeping the crew happy.

Another possible business model is to provide news for seafarers funded by
advertising; this might become more viable as e-procurement tools are developed to
give seafarers more purchasing power. If advertisers can pay for news services to be
delivered to vessels, this would enable a range of different services to be developed.

One of the most interesting developments is the bulletin board service, which is
provided as part of Rydex software, even the off-the-shelf Rydex Express. The
bulletin board has both operational information (such as weather and chart updates),
and news for seafarers.

Rydex currently has a big sales initiative, to get the Rydex software on as many
vessels as possible. As the number of vessels using the software expands, it will
become an excellent channel for delivering content services onboard ships.

IMC crews news

UK-based maritime communications company IMC reports a growing interest in its
“crews news” service, supplying a version of national newspapers, which can be
delivered onboard vessels.

IMC currently supplies news bulletins for Indian, Philipino, Greek and Russian crews;
for Russian crews there is a version in Cyrillic script. Services for Chinese and
Croatian crews are under consideration.

The news includes local and general news from home, sports news and international
news. All these editions are updated on a daily basis by the IMC multilingual
editorial staff and are available 364 days a year.

The news can be sent to ships as a normal e-mail text attachment. Onboard the
vessel, they can be printed out using IMC’s printing software. Copies can be
posted on notice boards, distributed to crew on paper or made available on an
onboard intranet.

“Ship owners and managers have long acknowledged that life at sea for their
crews can be lonely and sometimes monotonous, so regular, current news from
their homelands is not only appreciated but has also been seen as a real morale
booster,” says IMC.
Shell International Trading & Shipping uses the service on over 40 vessels.
"Crews' News is a very important part of the daily life on board our vessels,” says
Trevor Slater of Shell. “Being able to read the news in their own language helps
the officers and crew feel that little bit nearer to home."

"It keeps our crews up to date with what's happening at home and around the
world on a daily basis,” he says. “The importance of the newspaper can be
gauged by the immediate reaction if an edition goes missing, as well as a request
to change language when new staff join the ship."

IMC’s Geoff Gratwick comments that the investment a shipping company needs to
make in providing the news service to crew is very low considering the safety
improvements which result from improved crew welfare. “At the end of the day the
costs of it are minimal compared to the costs of running the ship,” he comments.

“There’s a lot of thought being given to crew welfare, I think its been changing for
quite some time,” he comments. “I think a lot of them are realising now, these guys
like to keep in touch.”

To top