So what did we learn from the first day of the GVF conference in London? Enough for plenty of future blog posts – but the over-riding takeaway from Wednesday was that satcom vendors need to understand more about shipping.
And on the flip side, shipowners and managers need to understand more about satcoms.
This double negative effect – whereby the vendor has little idea about what the owner really needs and prefers to seal a deal at any price, while the buyer is more likely a superintendent than an IT specialist – is creating problems once the kit is delivered and onboard.
Several times yesterday, the sheer number of satellite acronyms and numbers per second demonstrated what makes satcoms people tick. They are geeks. That’s not meant as an insult – they just have more in common with The Big Bang Theory than they do with, say, The Six Million Dollar Man.
Buyers, it seems are equally in the dark about what they need to do the job and how reliable and effective it is going to be once they are on the ocean. At times nervous of what their ignorance might reveal – also price driven and advised seemingly by what they read in the maritime press as much as by their own research – they sometimes make bad decisions.
It’s not all bad. Demetris Makaritis of Navigator Gas said his company was pleased to get a fixed monthly price for a mini-VSAT installation but observed wryly that the service was good ‘when it worked’. He also said the coverage was not what he had been led to believe, in part because he had fitted an antenna smaller than the recommended size.
Perhaps, a few of us pondered, that was an oversight, perhaps a cost saving, perhaps an absent-minded error. But it left him, not exactly back where he started, but longing for better system uptime and reliability.
Navigator’s LPG ships are pretty hi-tech and having done his own cost analysis, he was pleased with the 30% reduction in comms bills he achieved. But he admitted he would ‘happily pay more for bandwidth’ if the service was more reliable.
Finding out that India to Singapore was pretty much missing from the coverage, along with parts of the Mediterranean is not a nice feeling to have, one which left him to advise, ‘if you don’t can’t guarantee the coverage, don’t put it in your marketing’.
In an aside that certainly made him the most popular man in the lunch break, he said these doubts meant that he was far from certain which solution to go for on six LPG newbuildings.
How Makaritis and perhaps many another owner and manager found themselves with a system that wasn’t all it promised, was illustrated by Kaushik Roy of MOL LNG.
MOL is, like Navigator, a quality operator that invests in operation efficiency and crew welfare alike, but Roy was frank enough to say that owners would sometimes end up specifying systems because they lacked the knowledge to challenge what they were being sold.
There was not enough benchmarking or gap analysis and expectations on either side were often not known or understood clearly. Equally, he said the satcom sales person often had little or no technical knowledge about shipping or shipmanagement they ‘just wanted the contract’.
Again the issue is not entirely about money. Roy said MOL LNG’s move to VSAT had seen its comms costs rise modestly, but this was a price it was willing to pay for the value that the fatter pipe brought the company.
As conference co-chair Kuba Szymanski of Intermanager pointed out, it was something of a tragedy that more Radio Officers, which were ‘retired’ as computers replaced wireless onboard ship did not find employment with satcom companies.
If they had, both sides might be talking the same language.