Workboat Comms: Controlling Connectivity Costs

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

April 8, 2016

  • Steve Burke (Photo: Bluetide Communications)
  • AMP allows users to easily view active devices, the access point and data usage with the ability to instantly block any device(s) to free additional bandwidth for business-critical needs (Image: Bluetide Communications)
  • Steve Burke (Photo: Bluetide Communications) Steve Burke (Photo: Bluetide Communications)
  • AMP allows users to easily view active devices, the access point and data usage with the ability to instantly block any device(s) to free additional bandwidth for business-critical needs (Image: Bluetide Communications) AMP allows users to easily view active devices, the access point and data usage with the ability to instantly block any device(s) to free additional bandwidth for business-critical needs (Image: Bluetide Communications)

Bluetide Communications’ Access Management Portal (AMP) application for wireless network management is changing the way workboat operators manage data, crew and costs. 

Thousands of miles, and weeks or months out at sea, the next best thing to physically being there, is an electronic connection home, and today, mariners increasingly are reluctant to board vessels without access to some form of it. “What seafarers want overwhelmingly is a cost-effective way to speak to, and see, their loved ones,” notes researcher Futurenautics, adding that with millennials in particular considering access to the Internet as important as access to food and water, “the implications for the maritime industry are likely to be significant.”
Internet access and cheap global roaming SIM cards top the list of desired amenities in recent surveys of seafarers. Workboat personnel use an array of connectivity applications – social media, Skype, Wi-Fi and email – to handle personal banking and financial needs, shop, make appointments, and to take training classes and certification tests. They also like to keep up with current events and to unwind after their shifts with various entertainment options – scanning the news, watching movies and TV series, playing games and general internet surfing.
It all sounds good. All of that takes bandwidth and lots of it. And, if access to communications and entertainment is no longer just an optional amenity for boat operators to provide, at the same time, making sure that this doesn’t impact the bottom line is equally important. It turns out that both goals can be achieved.
Good Spend in a Down Economy
The ability to positively impact crew morale with online connectivity is especially important today given the aftershocks of falling oil and gas prices roiling the maritime sector. For example, Crewtoo’s survey reports that seafarer wages have fallen by as much as 40 percent – the worst some mariners have ever seen. But recruiters and users alike don’t expect to see organizations cutting existing services.
Companies already heavily invested in connectivity will keep those systems intact but probably hold off on expanding bandwidth or upgrading the current system, says Gladney Darroh, president and CEO of Piper-Morgan Associates Personnel. “In today’s market, do you continue to gold plate something? Maybe silver-plating works just fine.” 
Economic pressures are also forcing companies to both squeeze more use out of, and get a better handle on, their communications network. A downward trend in connectivity equipment and delivery costs and system size combined with an uptick in subscription service offerings and an expansion in functionality is redefining shipboard operations. At the same time, savvy workboat managers are quickly learning how to manage their comms spend in new and economical ways. 
Operational Efficiency Drives Boats
In the past, management used to just blindly throw more bandwidth (i.e. money) at problems; not any more. In addition to divvying up bandwidth between crew and operational apps, with management tools like Bluetide Communications’ Access Management Portal (AMP) application for wireless network management, it’s possible to monitor, from any location or device, network usage and change bandwidth allocations, divert traffic or incoming data dumps to unused channels, or even shut off access, in real-time, at the push of a button. Users can run the application or trust Bluetide to monitor network usage and make requested changes, like Jackson Offshore does. “It lets me focus on other priorities,” says Trent Zimmer, Jackson Offshore’s IT Manager.
Steve Burke, Regional Manager at Bluetide Communications adds, “AMP allows the customer to not only manage the system for the crew, but to manage for the end user paying for the service. In years past, they’d call, you’d open a trouble ticket, but no matter how much work you did, you could never validate or prove how the system was being used. AMP shows how long, who is using it and where they are, so it really gives a vessel manager a view into the satellite system that they never had before.”
Jackson’s eight vessels access a 1024x512 bandwidth pipe via VSAT and backup Iridium phones service, WiFi and wireless access points, Bluetide Communications/Hughes modem and below deck equipment, value-added services such as monitoring, and ancillary networks. The company dynamically allocates a percentage of its network to secure (corporate) use and a percentage to crew and guests. “This allows each sector to throttle up to 100 percent of the available bandwidth, but to never go below its allocation,” says Zimmer. “It’s a great approach to ensuring crew access doesn’t interfere with corporate needs.” 
Beyond this, and perhaps just as important, AMP removes the need for physical interference, or having a first mate or captain take their eyes off what they are doing to try and trace down who is using the bandwidth. 
Monitoring Makes an Impact
Reliable, affordable connectivity allows more than just serving up daily information dumps back to shore. It enables meteorological and nautical map updates on a scheduled basis, vessel tracking and safety monitoring. For instance, a camera onboard can provide onshore supervisors - and even clients – with a window into shipboard safety practices, which can be immediately corrected, as well as cargo security and density. Feeding a steady stream of equipment and fuel-related sensor data back to the home office allows for real time analysis, providing the opportunity for timely route, speed and crew schedule changes, equipment fixes or safety and security alerts.
Jackson Offshore is a good example of a company using its connectivity to improve vessel performance. “We have fuel tracking on several vessels that lets us see fuel flow in real time. It’s also part of an electronic log system, which captures a ton of information – fuel flow, oil flow, consumption, temperature, pressure – you can see and make decisions based on that data,” says Zimmer. 
From a cost-saving perspective, he is particularly pleased with Bluetide. “They’ll change the amount of bandwidth needed on 24-hour notice – that is almost unheard of in this industry. They let us monitor some of the bigger cost drivers – condition-based maintenance, fuel consumption, full access to generators and engines – so we can see what these are doing in real time. The system sees problems as they happen, so we can be proactive instead of reactive with a skyrocketing problem and save on costs.”
“Something we tried to do in the market from day one is to be flexible, to be as open and provide the customer with as much data as can be provided, to give them visibility into the system,” says Bluetide’s Burke, adding “A CIO at a large OSV company was tired of hearing the answer to every problem on board is ‘We need more bandwidth.’ He challenged us; he worked with our R&D. What can we do to differentiate ourselves in the market and make sure the customer benefited from it? Having the ability to manage bandwidth on a vessel remotely or even on board has been a game changer for us, it really has.”
Zimmer also uses vessel mapping fairly heavily. “Bluetide has a service – Bluevision – we’ve not seen elsewhere. It gives us the ability to use geo-fences to check on a vessel in real time. If it is in an area it shouldn’t be, we get notified.” Jackson also has just installed a tilt zoom camera that monitors back deck activity. “All the managers have access. It’s useful from both a safety aspect and for clients to see availability of space on the deck,” notes Zimmer. 

Value of Data Exceeds Cost
The value of data returned to shore far outweighs the cost of the service. Not surprisingly, this means that going forward, ships will want to connect crews not just to family, but to everything they can, moving better connectivity to the top of not just crew, but operator lists as well.
And, according to Bluetide, the cost [to install] is minimal compared to the savings you will achieve. Burke explains, “When you look at the minimal investment involved, it takes literally one month to pay for itself. Depending what is in place, we can do it in two hours. We did eight vessels in 12 hours. We average a little less than a day in setting it up – we can get it operating in 5-6 hours.”
The Author
Patricia Keefe is a veteran journalist, editor and commentator who writes about technology, business and maritime topics.
(As published in the April 2016 edition of Marine News)
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