Internet at Sea: Connectivity Issues for Crewmembers

Our addiction to our mobile devices means we text, Tweet, and talk all day long. When it comes to Internet usage aboard megayachts, there’s widespread—and incorrect—assumption that our connection will be fast and consistent everywhere, every time. NSSLGlobal, which provides more than 150 megayachts worldwide with satellite communications services, recently found that nearly 50 percent of 238 crewmembers surveyed hold this belief. Given that 90 percent of these crew have two personal devices onboard, 16 percent of them have a staggering six, and 90 percent of all of them can use their yacht’s Internet connection, the demand often outweighs the capacity. While a widespread survey of owners and guests has yet to be conducted, surely it’s safe to assume that nearly the same percentage of people believe connectivity onboard will be the same as it is for them at home.

Thankfully, there’s a solution: creating a fair-use data policy. We asked NSSLGlobal to weigh in on the subject.

Before attempting to develop a best-practice guide to help owners and crews adopt the right mindset for data usage, it makes sense to first define the problem and highlight the significant difference between supply and demand. By helping owners and crew to understand the problem it is more likely they can adjust their expectations and behaviour to get the best from the services available.

There have been huge leaps in the provision of Internet bandwidth to yachts over the last decade. These include general adoption of VSAT “full time” service onboard, “whole globe” availability, and increased reliability and stability. However, complaints have also increased. Why? The simple answer is that while supply of bandwidth has increased by up to a factor of five, the demand for bandwidth during the same period has increased exponentially. 

To put this in perspective, let’s look at connectivity on a typical “state-of-the-art” yacht today:

  • Typical download speeds: between 400 Kbps – 800 Kbps
  • Typical upload speeds: between 100 Kbps – 200 Kbps
  • Monthly fair-use limits range from 30 – 60 gigabytes per month

Now let’s compare that to the demand, by looking at the type of devices that are typically being used aboard and what they’re being used for:

  • An average of two to three data-heavy devices per person are now being carried onboard. These are devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, and media devices requiring 4 to 50 Mbps of bandwidth. The serviceable population is no longer just the 21 people onboard, it is now equivalent to 42 or 63 people because of the multiple devices all hungry for bandwidth.
  • Five years ago, email and voice were crewmembers’ primary means of communicating back home. Now bandwidth-hungry social and multimedia applications such as Facebook, Skype, Whatsapp, iMessage, and Facetime are being used instead, in addition to media-streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify for entertainment.

So what can be done to strike a balance between crews’ expectations and the business needs of a vessel for Internet communications? It comes down to rationing and education. Try these tips:

  1. Implement an Internet Usage Policy. This document clearly defines what a crewmember can expect to be able to do over the Intenret connection, and how much bandwidth can be expected. 
  2. Implement technology capable of monitoring and controlling individual usage as well as setting Internet access priorities. This will allow business usage to take precedence over entertainment and personal usage. 
  3. Limit the number of devices that a crewmember can use simultaneously.
  4. Counsel the crew to turn off particularly bandwidth-heavy apps that frequently synchronize data in an outward (ship-to-shore) direction, e.g. Dropbox.
  5. Implement temporary upgrades to the yacht’s bandwidth plan during guest trips and charters to address the supply side of the problem.
  6. Make the policy transparent. Put signage around the yacht. Share data-use issues with the crew on a monthly basis. Consider naming and shaming, or rewarding low bandwidth use. Point out the policy is for the common welfare of the crew.

At the end of the day, any technologically-savvy crewmember may find ways around restrictions you place on their devices. Conversely, some users do not have the technical capability to be responsible for managing their own data consumption.

The most important rule of all is to remember that the best policies should be personal, not technical. You’re dealing with people, not with the machines they carry. Demonstrating to your crew that it is in their interest to be mindful of their bandwidth usage will go a long way to alleviating these issues.

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