Comprehensive survey of seafarers by Futurenautics Research in association with InterManager, ISWAN, PTC, BIMCO and CrewToo finds access is an improving picture, but reveals certain sectors offering far poorer crew communications provision than others, with up to 30% of crew in some without access to a telephone.
Data allows ship operators to understand and benchmark provision across sectors and age groups; offers insight for suppliers into the changing requirements, habits and spending power of seafarers, and gives seafarers themselves the opportunity to have their collective voices heard across the industry.
With almost 3,000 respondents from more than 30 countries the 2014 Crew Communications Survey is the most comprehensive dataset available by which to measure access, costs, usage and future requirements of crew communications. Overall, access to crew communications is an improving picture, but with the MLC2006 now ratified by 61 countries and stipulating 'reasonable' access to communications at 'reasonable' cost, only 56% of seafarers claim to have access to communications facilities either always, or most of the time.
Provision varies considerably by sector however, with Container, Bulk and General Cargo offering the poorest levels of provision, where a good deal of the 6% of crew who never have access to crew communications work.
Telephone is still the most common form of crew communications service provision with 76% of seafarers on average having access, however in some sectors like General Cargo over 30% of respondents still have no access to a telephone.
With 77% of crew citing Internet access as the one free service they would choose if given the chance, perhaps the most encouraging finding is that Internet access is now available on average to 36% of all crew. Passenger and Offshore sectors where high penetration levels of VSAT and Inmarsat FleetBroadband systems exist are reporting close to 70% provision, with Container, Bulk Carriers and General Cargo lagging behind the industry with around 20% provision.
Perhaps surprisingly, almost half of the 36% reporting internet access are being provided it free of charge by ship operators. While this is very positive, this free provision is likely stemming from the highly complex charging structures communications suppliers provide to ship operators, making it difficult for them to implement pay-as-you-go internet access for crew. The survey demonstrated the same confusion amongst crew as regards what the communications services they access actually cost them per unit and confirms that complexity of charging could be acting as a brake upon usage—something suppliers should take steps to address.
On average respondents spend $134.00/month on crew communications whilst at sea, and spend $139.00/month whilst ashore, making the combined shore-based and sea-based crew communications market worth in excess of $2.6bn per annum. Despite the measurable improvement in access to communications, crew were equally split when asked whether access had improved in the last 2 years, possibly indicating that the improvements in speed and networks ashore mean the gap at sea continues to widen.
Only 25% of respondents cited using crew welfare facilities regularly - most likely linked to their ability to go ashore during port calls. For those using welfare facilities, most were doing so to use communications access to stay in touch with families and friends. Facebook remains the most popular website overall, with CrewToo the most popular maritime website amongst seafarers.
Despite concerns about MLC2006 the results of the survey suggest that rather than focussing on the dangers of non-compliance, operators should focus on new opportunities for improved operations, efficiency and margin which better access to connectivity for crew can drive.
The survey shows that seafarers represent a highly IT-literate workforce, the majority of whom believe that access to broadband at sea has impacted positively on safety and efficiency. Coupled with the range of personal devices being brought onboard, these findings suggest there are significant opportunities for ship operators to utilise technology more, and in more innovative ways to drive efficiencies and safety of operations.
The results also reveal that the level of access to crew communications is a factor for crew when deciding which operators to work for. 69% of crew indicated that this was a factor in their decision, with this sentiment highest amongst highly IT-literate crew—precisely those which operators need to attract and retain.
Access to crew communications is an improving picture, but it isn't good enough, and perhaps the key message from the 2014 Crew Communications Survey, is that this doesn't just disadvantage crew.
"Operators are recognising the operational efficiencies improved connectivity for vessels can deliver. One hopes that this clear evidence from seafarers of the additional benefits delivered by improving crew communications—not just with family and friends, but with colleagues and company—will encourage more to see the potential," said Roger Adamson, CEO of Futurenautics Research.
"The overwhelming message from this survey is that crew want to speak to, or see their loved ones on video, regularly and affordably. Addressing that one wish would mean a massive positive change in the lives of seafarers. The industry has the technology to enable that, and increasingly not simply a moral and regulatory, but a commercial imperative to deliver it."
Roger Harris of ISWAN said "Communications are the number one welfare priority for seafarers. There is alot in this report for seafarer welfare organisations to consider. One key finding is that seafarers are still paying a too large a proportion of thier monthly wages on communications both at sea and ashore."