The connectivity battle – sea versus space

20th May 2016
Source: NASA
Posted By : Joe Bush
The connectivity battle – sea versus space

Sailors working on vessels spread across the Earth’s oceans and seas must be better connected than astronauts, who’s working environment is hundreds of kilometres into space, right? Well, recent research from the 2015 Crew Connectivity Survey and sources such as NASA and The Atlantic has taken a closer look at the communication services that are provided to sailors, as well as the limiting factors that impact accessibility, making a direct comparison to the services available in space.

Life at sea versus life in space
With a strong WiFi signal and your trusty smartphone, it’s easy to stay connected on land - but how do things change when you’re in the middle of the ocean or orbiting in space? They’re both extreme scenarios, but which is better for communication? Who can communicate better - crew or astronauts?

Life at sea
The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 advised 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’. However, 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.

At sea
Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they had access to crew communications always or most of the time - this is up two percent on 2014’s results. However, 35% of respondents only have access sometimes. Seven percent 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.

What crew communications are provided?
Across all sectors, of those surveyed:

  • 79% had access to satellite telephone (voice calling). This is the most widely available method of communication. In some sectors, this figure drops to just 70%.
  • Only 43% had internet access.
  • 42% had access to text only emails.
  • 28% had access to on board GSM (Global System for Mobile) communication and is a digital mobile telephony system.
  • 24% had access to SMS messaging.

Where can these services be accessed?
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.

  • 47% can access crew communications on the ship’s bridge.
  • 36% of respondents can access crew communications in their cabin - this is the only place crew members can communicate privately.
  • 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.

Limiting factors
When these services are available, what is preventing crew members from using them?

  • 59% said the services are too expensive.
  • 27% said too many people are trying to use them.
  • 26% said they don’t get regular use.
  • 18% said nothing limits their use.

Clearly, cost is a major drawback for many crew members- but just how many are paying for communication services? Here’s how many enjoy the following services for free:

  • Text only email - 53%.
  • Internet access - 49%.
  • Email with attachments - 49%.
  • Video chat - 41%.
  • SMS messaging - 24%.
  • On board GSM - 12%.
  • Satellite phone - 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 six percent are able to go ashore on every port call.

Of those who do go ashore, 28% use crew welfare facilities while in port:

  • Of these facilities, 34% used internet/WiFi services, six percent use the telephone and four percent purchased local SIM cards.

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

Does your rank effect how connected you are?
Of the 3,057 total respondents from over 30 countries, 59% of were officers and 41% were ratings - does their position impact how connected they are? Thirty-two percent 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 three percent said it had even got worse.

Life in Space
NASA’s Gene Feldman has been quoted as saying: “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.”

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.

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.”

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”. 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.

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

How is the internet accessed?
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.

Believe it or not, 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.


  • Astronauts can dial any number and speak to anyone they wish.
  • It’s more private than previous communication methods, which would have to include mission control.


  • The space station can block or go out of range of the phone call signals.
  • Because of the distance, there is often a lag in conversations.

Life at sea vs life in space: the verdict.
So, who has the better deal in terms of communication? The results seem definitive. Despite orbiting the earth thousands of miles away, astronauts are more connected than the crew sailing the seas on our own planet. Despite being 400km away from Earth, ISS astronauts are better connected than sailors who travel the 361 million square kilometres of our planet’s oceans.

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