WiFi and WiMAX in ports and seafarers’ access to the Internet
Developments in new technology and implications for seafarers’ welfare
This report is based on findings of a research project commissioned by the International Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare (ICSW) and funded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Seafarers’ Trust. The project ran from January to April 2011. 
The author would like to thank all those who participated in the research survey and interviews. She owes particular thanks to Johan Deleu of the Port of Antwerp; Yuanheng Kwek of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore; Lourens Visser of the Port of Rotterda; Cor Oudendijk of the Port of Amsterdam; Joseph Chacko of Kandla Seafarer Welfare Association, and Jorg Pfautsch of the German Seamen’s Mission.
In accordance with the wishes of research participants, some respondents’ identities are not specified in order to maintain their anonymity.
“It is normal to miss your family and to sometimes feel lonely, bored, and depressed at sea, or to not be able to sleep. But somehow by sending an email or making a call, it really helps.”
Communicating with home is of paramount importance to seafarers and their welfare. Extensive anecdotal evidence, such as the comment above , signals the positive effects communicating with home can have on seafarers’ mental wellbeing while away from their family and friends for several months at a time, often working in small crews with limited shore leave. At the same time, improved communications between seafarers and their relatives seem likely to increase their cohesion. At present, seafarers’ access to the Internet and phones aboard ship is both limited and seems expensive. In his extensive study of port welfare services, Kahveci (2007: 27) cites just 16% of seafarers (N=3527) having access to emails onboard. Given the limited availability of email at sea, Kahveci reports seafarers using satellite phones as their main method of communicating with home, which are expensive, followed by personal mobiles (primarily for texting) when in range of a signal (ibid.: 30). If able to go ashore while in port, seafarers can take advantage of varying communication facilities in seafarer centres. While some centres only provide phone cards for use in the nearest public phone box (Kahveci 2010: 38), others are equipped with computers linked to the Internet, or with WiFi signals to which seafarers can connect using their own wireless-enabled devices. It is not clear what percentage of seafarers sail with personal laptops; one welfare worker interviewed during this research in the Port of Antwerp, Jorg Pfautsch, estimated almost all officers to have laptops compared to 20–30% of ratings, although he and others considered this number to be rising.
A new development affecting seafarers is mobile WiMAX, a wireless network technology that differs significantly from WiFi in the way in which it operates (see Box 1). A small minority of welfare organisations have begun to take mobile WiMAX technology on ship visits so that crew can connect to the Internet via their personal computers without having to come ashore. While there is potential for growth in the number of welfare workers taking mobile WiMAX onto ships in this way, the numbers of seafarers benefiting from the technology would remain modest.
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