The challenges of providing broadband communications to the shipping industry were explored in a breakout session at Orange Business Live 2010. Currently reliant on costly satellite connections there's a growing recognition of the need for bandwidth to support operations and the social needs of crew members. Cost remains the issue but the speakers at the session emphasised the ways in which bandwidth can be used to drive operational efficiencies with services provided to the crew to aid retention of staff as a value add.
The challenges are clear, especially as the sector has been relatively hard hit by the global crisis. Issues range from the cost of having ships dormant in a boatyard for maintenance and repair when broadband could enable some maintenance to be completed while the vessel is afloat and working on the ocean.
The challenges are further compounded because many shipping companies run their systems offline and they are not connected in real-time. Bandwidth enables more effective route planning, thereby saving fuel and minimises the need for administration tasks to be carried out in ports.
Further to that, the industry faces crew retention issues. Crew members are away from their families and friends for extensive periods of time and the isolation of that results in high staff turnover. It is felt that providing access to the internet, VoIP and social media could alleviate that issue.
Ron Vollenga of Outsource-IT Management, an independent consultancy that provides design of vessel ICT management, gave a presentation detailing the variety of applications that availability of broadband opens up. "A lot of applications can be provided in combination with broadband," he said. "Weather forecast information and sailing schedules can be accessed so you can optimise the voyages of your vessels. Condition based monitoring of engines that communicate directly with engine supplier who, using the data gathered, can monitor the engine and based on condition can know which parts to replace."
Other applications include telemedicine, business-related internet access and webcam usage for security reasons. "It's useful for anti-piracy," he added. "It's not a case of big brother is watching you, it's to help the crew on board."
Vollenga thinks of the concept in straightforward terms; "Think of it as having a vessel on your network," he said.