Connecting crew during COVID-19

26 March 2020

Ronald Spithout, President, Inmarsat Maritime

  • maritime

Given Inmarsat’s position as the leading provider of maritime VSAT services at sea, it is hardly surprising that we have been alert to the direct connection between coronavirus and surging demand for crew voice call and data services. As elsewhere, anxiety levels at sea have been on the rise with the spread of COVID-19.

Since the virus first became widespread in Asia we have been working across the company and with our partners to take proactive steps to keep seafarers connected and in touch with loved ones during this difficult time.

In February, Inmarsat enabled free of charge additional call time for users of our ChatCard voice services for crew. All ship managers offering the service have been made aware of the offer, while we also sought help from groups such as the Singapore Shipowners Association to spread the word.

Inmarsat also provides medical advice and assistance free of charge to seafarers over Fleet One, FleetBroadband and F77 services – anywhere, anytime and for anybody in need. We have also prioritised telemedicine as an area for service development with our application partners, at no cost to owners or the crew.

However, with anxiety over coronavirus at a high pitch worldwide, those at sea are as entitled as any to the medical and policy updates disseminated by authorities and news media, whether aimed at seafarers themselves or their loved ones at home. In recent weeks, Inmarsat has also been working with a number of shipowners to find other ways of subsidising increasing bandwidth demands from vessels. Soon we will announce further incentives that our wholesale partners can choose to use to provide additional support for crew using our services.

People working ashore can sometimes focus on secondary issues when they talk about crew welfare and well-being in today’s connected world. The Royal Holloway, University of London ‘Navigating Everyday Connectivities at Sea report, commissioned by Inmarsat in collaboration with the Sailors’ Society, illuminated patterns in behaviour that directly linked connectivity and welfare.

This report found that, as soon as a ship comes within range of a terrestrial network, seafarers use their mobile phone regardless of time of day and whether they are or are not working. Where seafarers had to ration their allowance, the researchers found it could mean that domestic issues were not resolved, adding to personal anxiety. One went so far as to say that ‘the only thing more important than connectivity is food’. A seafarer working on the high seas worrying about those at home is unlikely to be focused.

The research also found that, when denied connectivity, crew members can be ingenious in finding work arounds: respect for crew welfare is all the more imperative in difficult times to avoid risks to a ship’s cyber security.

We are also looking at helping crew using our new ‘Fleet Hotspot’ Wi-Fi solution developed for Crew Xpress, the crew connectivity offering launched for Fleet Xpress maritime broadband customers in 2019. Crew Xpress offers a managed ‘channel’ for crew to connect via their own devices using a login, with time or data exchanged for vouchers or online payments.

However, as COVID-19 unfolds, there is much more to be done, especially in driving forward our work with the welfare and charitable organisations but also working even closer with shipowners, managers and even the Master on board to ensure that crew get access to the new packages that are being created.

Earlier this week, I hosted a conversation with the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and the main maritime charities to discuss development of a crew portal and further data and voice incentives for crew quarantined on board.

We will continue to discuss and act on what more can be done on crew connectivity by all parties in the days and weeks ahead and we already have a working group with ISWAN and the charities in order to support seafarers as much as we can during this time. We need everyone to embrace these challenges and work together on these initiatives as the responsibility doesn’t just fall on the satellite operator or welfare association at this time, we’re all in this together.


About the author

Ronald SpithoutRonald Spithout has been President, Inmarsat Maritime, since October 2014, overseeing global maritime activities for Inmarsat. Prior to joining the maritime business unit, he served as President, Inmarsat Enterprise. In this role, held since 2012, he had global responsibility for sales, including accountability for P&L, strategic direction and partnerships for enterprise markets, including Energy, Media and Commercial. Spithout came to Inmarsat from Stratos Global, which had been acquired by Inmarsat in April 2009 and then restructured under the Inmarsat brand in January 2012. Ronald Spithout began his career in the telecommunications business in the late 80s, held various sales positions for KPN (the Royal Dutch Telecom Operator) in the Netherlands and has held numerous positions with several of KPN’s JV companies. He holds a degree in electrical engineering from HTS-Rotterdam, the Rotterdam Institute for Technology. He also served in the Dutch military as a reserve Lieutenant in the Dutch Cavalry.