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Wi-Fi on board – contentious connectivity, costs and demographics
August 31, 2022
In the first of a series of articles exploring the key themes, guidance and recommendations in ISWAN’s recently released Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project Phase Two Report, the project Research Lead Dr. Kate Pike delves into why the report recommends free, reliable onboard Wi-Fi for crew on all vessels.
Onboard connectivity has long been a contentious issue, with debate surrounding whether it has a positive or negative impact on social interaction and seafarer mental health.
Recent revisions to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) have somewhat resolved the argument around Wi-Fi provision, as it now stipulates that ship owners, where possible, should provide seafarers sailing on their vessels with internet access. However, this comes with the caveat that the provision should be with reasonable or no charges, leaving possibility and price somewhat vague areas for interpretation (ILO, 2022).
The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network’s (ISWAN) Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project, examined, among other areas, the impacts of Wi-Fi and social interaction. During phase one, the research findings identified the controversy surrounding connectivity on board and found it was more likely to be considered a barrier to interaction by non-seafarers, such as those in the shore office, and by those with 20 years or more experience within the industry.
'I think that the company should invest much more in the Wi-Fi on board. I know that many people they think that if we had better Wi-Fi none will talk with each other. But I actually think that it will have the opposite effect, because at this moment at sea our Wi-Fi is usually very bad and unstable, so we spent a lot of time in our cabin trying to speak with those at home, … where if our internet were just working and we could easily receive and send messages, or just talk all with our families for 10 minutes …'
These demographics indicate that if the sector is to successfully attract greater diversity, including younger people, into maritime, more consideration of modern seafaring and a greater understanding of the needs of seafarers, is required – particularly in light of current recruitment and retention issues. If people ashore are reliant on their devices to stay connected to family and friends, and to enjoy content and entertainment, why should this not similarly apply to seafarers?
Although the changes to the MLC are a welcome development which could benefit many seafarers, there are still issues of affordability if a shipping company insists on charging for connectivity. With an increasing drive for cheap labour on board vessels, if Wi-Fi costs are passed onto seafarers, these are likely to impact the poorest hardest, creating a wealth hierarchy on board where only those that can afford it will have good access to their family and friends while away at sea for months at a time.
During the SIM Project phase two trials, all vessels had Wi-Fi on board, but for most this was restricted to a daily time and/or data allowance. Some crews were required to pay for internet access. The data showed that crews who experienced poor quality Wi-Fi or times when the internet was inaccessible, tended not to be as happy.
'Slow internet connection is affecting crew mood onboard, making it more difficult to communicate with their families.'
'Internet sometimes weak, we cannot make a videocall to our family. […] Of course if there is a chance to speak their family the crew can feel more relaxed.'
The Seafarers Happiness Index (2021) also endorses the importance of good Wi-Fi access and connectivity on board and highlights how most seafarers view it as a priority, emphasising the benefits it brings them from a welfare perspective (Mission to Seafarers, 2021).
The SIM Project demonstrated how poor Wi-Fi can have a significant impact on crew wellbeing. During COVID-19 times, when shore leave has been heavily restricted or in many cases stopped entirely, connectivity has become more crucial than ever before. Crew need the reassurance of regularly speaking to their families. Additionally, the playing of online games and activities on phones in cabins was noted positively, particularly when crew felt too tired to interact with anyone else face to face.
Sara Baade, CEO of Sailors’ Society, said:
‘COVID-19 and the present war in Ukraine have only reinforced the vital importance of Wi-Fi on seafarer mental health that was first highlighted in the 2018 Sailors’ Society’s ‘Navigating Everyday Connectivities at Sea’ study.
‘We are delighted that this year seafarers’ groups have won the right to mandatory social connectivity for crews – including internet access. There is no doubt that reliable internet access helps to reduce the emotional stresses caused by separation from friends and families ashore. Virtual contact home, no matter how brief, can make so much difference to the wellbeing of seafarers and can also boost operational efficiency and safety.’
Dr. Jason Zuidema, General Secretary at ICMA, added:
‘A high-quality internet connection while at sea is especially important for seafarers to remain connected with their families and communities back home. No doubt, seafarers – like all of us – enjoy games, videos or social media online to pass a bit of downtime. More, on land and sea, so much of our professional lives now also assumes a stable internet connection for online training, banking, and sending official documents. Access to WiFi in seafarers' centres or bringing data-enabled SIM cards on board has been a key activity of port-based seafarers' welfare providers in the past decade.’
Widely shared concerns about Wi-Fi encouraging fatigued seafarers to isolate in their cabins can be alleviated in two ways. The first requires a sector-wide, cultural shift against ever-increasing workloads of seafarers and reduced manning levels. A review of seafarers working hours and the impact of these on their mental health and fatigue is necessary. Having a good understanding of this will indicate where time needs be dedicated to leisure and rest on board to help alleviate stress and promote safe working practice. The second is a key SIM Project recommendation: the need for the appointment of a voluntary Social Ambassador on every vessel to help promote social interaction and crew engagement on board. One of the Social Ambassador’s responsibilities is to provide a range of activities which promote a healthy balance of mental and physical stimulation, thereby offering an alternative to online games and spending time alone in cabins.
Although Wi-Fi and connectivity can result in a decline of more traditional forms of social interaction on board, as noted by the research, a shift in attitude can actually lead to it being utilised positively to engage crew through, for example, interaction within social media groups (e.g. WhatsApp), gaming together online, voting for preferred activities using online polls, and signing up to virtual ‘event boards’. The SIM Project phase two Recommendations and Guidance includes a section on ‘Activities using technology’ which may be arranged to engage more than one crew member and so facilitate positive social interaction. Suggestions made by the seafarers of the 10 participating shipping companies included, computer games and multi-player mobile games, ship and shore photos that can be shared and sent home, vlogging and WhatsApp groups on board and potentially with other vessels within the fleet.
It seems that controversy surrounding the benefits and challenges of Wi-Fi will remain. However, the need for current and future generations of seafarers to access their digital networks to avoid isolation, supports the MLC in requiring its provision on board where possible.
Considering the mental health benefits that good connectivity provides, the SIM Project recommends that not only should Wi-Fi be installed and well maintained to provide a reliable connection on board; it should also be provided free of charge to all.