Tag Archives: Vizada


Crew retention is the tip of the digital iceberg

Almost 12 months ago an ambitious project began to take shape. Roger Adamson of Stark Moore Macmillan, Vizada (now Astrium Services) and two of the largest crewing agencies in the world, Philippine Transmarine Carriers and CF Sharp, joined forces to embark on the most comprehensive survey of crew and their attitudes towards and use of communications at sea ever undertaken.

The resulting report has generated considerable interest. But while Adamson says it is encouraging to see so many shipmanagers and operators recognising the operational benefits of improved communications from a crew retention perspective, in this guest blog, he lays out why he believes there is a wider opportunity which comparatively few in the industry are really grasping.

Considering the enduring importance of crew retention it may seem surprising that until last year no organisation had commissioned definitive independent research into the communications requirements and habits of seafarers.

However, when confronted with the logistics of reaching, collecting and analysing the written, paper responses of almost 1,000 officers and ratings, this lack of comprehensive research becomes rather more understandable.

Key to any research project is the quality of the data and the sample. Had we not been working with PTC and CF Sharp which between them send over 47,000 crew each year to over 1,000 vessels in the commercial cargo and passenger sectors, it is unlikely such a survey would have been possible.

It certainly wouldn’t have produced such high quality data and responses. With the total market for satellite based crew communications estimated at approximately 925,000 individuals, our sample represents in the region of 1% of the market – making the dataset both fascinating and statistically significant.

One of the headline results has been that 68% of seafarers now have access to communications whilst at sea either all or most of the time with only 2% reporting that they never have access to communications. However those headline figures mask a wide variance between different sectors. For instance the passengership sector, despite having the highest levels of communications equipment on board, provides the lowest levels of free crew communications of any sector.

In common with the passenger sector, offshore vessels have very high levels of equipment, but neither of these are principally driven by crew communications requirements. For the passenger sector, high-bandwidth communications systems are major revenue generators with the penetration of VSAT extremely high.

Similarly, the offshore sector is well penetrated with VSAT systems as charterer requirements dictate high-bandwidth be available, but in contrast to the passenger sector, offshore vessels offer far better access to free and paid-for communications, most likely a reflection of the scarcity of qualified offshore crew.

Across the sectors 46% of crew are not provided with any form of free communications at all. In the context of crew retention that figure should be raising eyebrows.

As a regular speaker at the Informa Manning & Training conference, where this year I’ve been asked to speak to delegates in Dubrovnik about crew communications, I consistently hear managers and operators wrestling with the issue of crew retention.

I’m repeatedly being told that the expense of training crew means that retaining them offers real dollar savings and competitive advantage. When one considers the noise VSAT has been making over the past several years it is curious that we are still in a situation where almost half of all seafarers have no access to free communications, when the ability to provide them with such would not only assist in their retention, but also offer broader opportunities to ship managers and operators.

I think this is where the real issues lie. Traditionally the expense of satellite communications together with the necessity for robust equipment and reliability in an environment where mission-critical literally equates to life and death, has always meant failure wasn’t an option and experimentation challenging.

As one of the most regulated industries in the world, shipping is about compliance and meeting minimum requirements. In many respects it is a unique industry, but it is not immune from the digital revolution which has swept up every other.

With the IMO advocating an over-arching e-navigation strategy combining ECDIS with new technologies converging across navigation, IT and communications, the landscape of maritime business is changing fast.

The opportunities for forward thinking ship managers and operators are highly significant, but unlocking maritime’s digital promise will require a major shift in thinking. IT, communications and digital technologies have the potential to drive cost savings, service improvements and the all-important crew retention.

In my experience shipmanagers and operators are hungry to understand how and where their businesses can implement and benefit from these changes, but as yet suppliers aren’t creating the cross-businesses value propositions to help them.

By commissioning the Crew Communications 2012 survey Astrium have signaled their intention to address this need. The wealth of information it has provided to shipmanagers and operators about the crew they depend upon is extremely valuable, but it’s only the beginning of what’s required.

Case studies have always been the primary tool in the maritime salesperson’s armoury, but what’s needed now are more independent, in-depth studies and analysis which can inform both suppliers, and ship managers and operators.

The advent of new High Throughput Satellite systems, from Intelsat EPIC to Inmarsat’s GlobalXpress, O3B to Iridium NEXT, means bandwidth and speeds will accelerate further. But without the context of operational implementation and potential cost efficiencies these systems are just adding a new level of complexity for ship managers and operators.

We are approaching an era of real technology convergence in maritime which has the potential to transform the industry for the better. Doing so will require technology suppliers to gain a far more holistic and in-depth understanding of the shipping business. And for ship managers and operators to help them.

A condensed version of the Stark Moore McMillan report, Crew Communications 2012 is available for download from here.

Marlink: Inmarsat Global Xpress part of the mix – but not at any price

As DigitalShip’s Rob O’Dwyer pointed out at the Marlink-Astrium SMM press conference, without Marlink, Inmarsat is going to struggle to sell its Global Xpress VSAT offering.

But as O’Dwyer also noted, Marlink needs Inmarsat too, despite its market penetration – it claims that one in every two ships sailing uses data provided via Vizada or Marlink, the former now rebranded as Astrium.

It’s also because Marlink has the power to effectively take business away from Global Xpress if the two fail to strike an agreement, given its portfolio approach of competing VSAT and L-band offers.

As Marlink ceo Tore Morten Olsen pointed out, as the market gets more complicated, its offer is about simplifying choice for users. If that means Inmarsat, Intelsat, Iridium or another, they can tailor the pipe and the applications that act as added value.

And in addition to new capacity booked on Intelsat’s Ku-band mobility infrastructure and an entry-level VSAT service, Marlink has some nice add-ons. These range from the relatively common VSAT/L-band auto-switching to nifty iPhone and iPad user management control interfaces and integration of Microsoft Outlook into its SkyFile email package, with 500 merchant vessels slated for upgrade.

Its WaveCall VSAT services are also being sold on a MSS-like basis, with access and bandwidth bundles priced to allow users to dip their toes in the water and ‘open up to all you can eat’ any time they are ready.

Astrium said it had already sold more than 200 such bundles – double its projected target. As Morten Olsen quipped, “the industry has realised it is raining and it will continue to rain for a while. Owners need to keep going until the rain goes away. Business decisions are being made on operational efficiency gains”. For once this wasn’t about rain fade.

All good stuff but what about the bigger picture? Morten Olsen pointedly said the company would ‘maintain our loyalty to both customers and partners’ a swipe at Inmarsat’s new policy of ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

Even so, he revealed that Astrium was negotiating with Inmarsat to become a GX distribution partner, in line with its ‘multi-technology’ approach. To some extent he said this was less about Ka or Ku band, but rather about being able to offer the best and broadest range of services.

Negotiations are ongoing and Marlink’s aim he said was to ‘be able to build a sustainable business model for GX and a future for Astrium and our partners. A major part of this business is with our distribution channel so we are not just negotiating for Astrium in this agreement”.

And he added that the negotiations were unlikely to succeed solely on the basis of price. It was ‘critical’ he said that any agreement was based on services. If Inmarsat continued to insist that maritime was a one market, one service sector, then it failed to understand the ecosystem that supports it. Marlink’s pitch would be for value-adds and that the technology connection to the ‘solution layer’ should be independent of the connectivity provided. The era of open source satcoms is upon us.

And in case that seemed too neutral, there was a final swipe at the announcement the day previously of Inmarsat’s unlimited FleetBroadband package – an offer he said was most likely dreamt up to counter its WaveCall offer.

“We have lot of experience with the one customer [Maersk] which has unlimited FleetBroadband so we have a good idea of how many vessels of that type can connect to the network before it cracks up. That’s the next question to ask Inmarsat.”