Extreme field service: Life at Sea vs. Life in Space

Jul 13, 2016 • FeaturescommunicationsconnectivitySpace communicationstechnologyTechnology

With a strong Wi-Fi signal and your trusty smartphone, it’s easy to stay connected on land,  but how do communications  change when you’re in the middle of the ocean or orbiting in space?

They’re both extreme field service scenarios, but which is better for communication? Global Navigation Solutions has been investigating who can connect better — crew or astronauts?

Life at sea

The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 advises that ship operators should give crews “reasonable access to ship-to-shore telephone communications, and email and Internet facilities, where available, with any charges for the use of these services being reasonable in amount”. But just how closely are operators following these guidelines?

Between April and August 2015, the 2015 Crew Connectivity Survey was carried out to establish what crew communications at sea are really like.

On average, respondents spent over 7 months per year at sea. A mission to the International Space Station (ISS) lasts around six months. Despite being in the earth’s atmosphere, it seems crews are often less connected than astronauts in orbit .

Despite being in the earth’s atmosphere, crews are often less connected than astronauts in orbit.

While 58% of respondents said they had access to crew communications always or most of the time — this is up 2% on 2014’s results. However, 35% of respondents only have access sometimes. 7% have never had access while on-board. While this may seem a small percentage, it equates to 103,000 global seafarers who have no way of contacting loved ones — up 25,000 since 2014.


Across all sectors, of those surveyed:[unordered_list style="bullet"]

  • 79% had access to satellite telephone,  the  most widely available communication method.
  • Only 43% had internet access.
  • 42% had access to text-only emails.
  • 28% had access to onboard GSM.
  • 24% had access to SMS messaging.

On land, we can stay connected almost anywhere, with the exception of mountain peaks and remote locations. At sea, it’s a very different story.

  • [unordered_list style="bullet"]
    • 47% can access crew communications on the ship’s bridge
    • Just 36% of respondents can access crew communications privately in their cabin
    • 35% can access crew communications in a communal area
    • 29% can access crew communications in an on-board office
    • 13% can access crew communications in the engine control room

When these services are available, only 18 % there were no limiting factors; 59% said the services are too expensive, 27% 27% said too many people were trying to use them and 26% said they don’t get regular use.

Clearly, cost is a major drawback for many crew members.  Just over half (53%) has free access to text-only email, 49% has free Internet access and email with attachments, 41% could have video chats, 24% could access free SMS messaging, while on-board GSM for voice calls was available to only 12% and satellite phones to 7%.

In port

Where crew communications are limited on-board, there is potential to stay in touch with family and friends when the ship is in port. However, 72% never or rarely go ashore during port calls and just 6% are able to go ashore on every port call

Of those who do go ashore, 28% use crew welfare facilities while in port and 34% used internet/Wi-Fi services, 6% used the telephone and 4% purchased local SIM cards.

Is rank a factor?

Of the 3,057 total respondents from over 30 countries, 59% of were officers and 41% were ratings. 32% of officers always have access to crew communications. Just 27% of ratings always have access.

So, how effective has the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 been? On the whole, the majority believe crew communications has improved. However, 39% said it had not improved since it was introduced and 3% said it had even got worse.

Life in Space

“But even with all the technology that we have today -- satellites, buoys, underwater vehicles and ship tracks -- we have better maps of the surface of Mars and the moon than we do the bottom of the ocean. “ — Gene Feldman

"Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station - the 1st live tweet from Space! :)"

Over the years, our knowledge and exploration of space has grown. As technology has advanced, it’s being used to make the lives of astronauts more comfortable during explorations.


The Intergalactic Internet

In 2010, NASA enhanced the quality of life of astronauts with the release of a special software update that allowed them personal access to the internet.

Expedition 22’s Flight Engineer, T.J. Creamer was the first to use the intergalactic internet, posting the following tweet: "Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station - the 1st live tweet from Space! :) More soon, send your ?s"


While the internet may ease the isolation of space, it doesn’t offer the quickest connection, as a result of the distance signals have to travel. In 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted while in space: “We have a slow internet connection. Worse than what dial-up was like. Using it to answer your question right now.”

When an astronaut in space clicks an Internetlink, the request travels 22,000 miles to a network of geosynchronous satellites. This is passed to a receiver on the Earth before being passed back to the astronaut’s laptop or tablet.

Accessing the Internet

According to NASA spokesman, David Steitz, astronauts have laptops on board, including one in their personal sleeping quarters. They are also given tablet computers so they can video chat with family and friends at home.


Astronauts can make phone calls from space too, although the technology is a lot more complicated than a standard landline.

Astronauts can call friends and family using the Softphone, specialist software found on laptops. By using Internet Protocol (IP), signals are routed from space to Earth. Astronauts can dial numbers through the computer’s keypad and speak through a headset.

It means astronauts can dial any number and speak to anyone they wish and it’s more private than previous communication methods, which included Mission Control. However, the space station can block or go out of range of the phone call signals and because of the distance, there is often a lag in conversations.[quote float="left"]While the internet may ease the isolation of space, it doesn’t offer the quickest connection, as a result of the distance signals have to travel


Life at sea vs life in space: the verdict

So, who has the better deal in terms of communication: crew or astronauts?

Availability: astronauts have access to emails, social media, video calling and phone calls, while communications services for crews differ by ship operator.

Cost: Astronauts have free communication, while costs for crews differ between ship operators.

Privacy: Astronauts have personal laptops in their sleeping quarters while only a small proportion of crew members can access communication services privately in their cabin.

The results seem definitive - despite being 400km away from Earth, ISS astronauts are better connected than sailors who travel the 361 million square km of our planet’s oceans.



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