Wireless Maritime Services (WMS) provides connectivity solutions at sea including cellular, Wi-Fi and IoT. The team responsible for remotely managing wireless networks on board cruise and container ships is our Network Management Center (NMC). The NMC are the first responders for WMS when network issues or outages occur with a mission to restore critical communication keeping people, data and things connected at sea and maintaining our best-in-class network uptime.
The First Responders of WMS
Every single day of the year the WMS NMC monitors 170+ vessels around the world at sea. To adequately manage so many vessels in various time zones, the team rotates three shifts in a 24-hour period. The NMC network engineer’s area of responsibility expands far beyond providing basic support and includes deep technical knowledge of end-to-end mobile connectivity in a maritime environment. Because of this in-depth knowledge, the members of the NMC team independently resolve complex technical issues maintaining our best-in-class network uptime and customer satisfaction.
The team's priority is to handle critical faults; the NMC are Tier 1 engineers when a fault is identified. With their in-depth knowledge and expertise of maritime networks, the team may consult with Tier 2 engineers throughout the life of a fault until the issue is resolved. Using this methodology, the NMC Tier 1 engineer continues to learn advanced skills which improves response time and ultimately further improves network uptime.
Not Your Typical Day
As the first responders of WMS, a typical day begins with a team huddle to communicate open issues. This is a critical step in maintaining service continuity for incoming team members. A network health check is performed to further isolate any undetected issues. If anything is detected the team investigates and analyzes the issue and provides details to Tier 2 for resolution. During a shift, the team collaborates with internal and external customers to discuss reports, issues or ad hoc projects. Unlike other operations centers, at the NMC all shifts have critical work to conduct in addition to monitoring the WMS fleet around the world. Since ships are dispersed across all time zones there are no shifts that have a lighter workload compared to others.
Network issues can range from something as simple as a single component fault to a complete network outage. As faults are identified, the NMC Engineer investigates to see if it can be solved remotely and independently. When needed, the NMC will contact the ship's onboard point of contact to assist; it is not uncommon for the NMC to report an issue before the vessel team is even aware of a fault.
Many critical issues are satellite related, causing all systems to be offline when the connection has failed. Outages are more common in the northern regions of the globe such as Alaska, Canada and Norway due to the geographical landscape. The satellite "look angle" is significantly less in these areas, thus large glaciers and mountains block the satellite signal to a ship because of the curvature of the earth. When a high priority fault comes in for an outage, the NMC immediately notifies the vessel team and begins to work with them, internal WMS teams, and the satellite vendor to solve the issue.
Although there is nothing typical about the NMC’s daily workload, there are atypical days with critical issues that allow the team to put their skills and expertise to the test. The team must contend with the ever-changing maritime environment, ranging from environmental satellite interference to hurricanes. The team must consistently strategize and find innovative ways to continuously monitor networks under various environmental conditions.
The Traits of an NMC Engineer
It takes agililty, strategic thinking and diligent problem-solving skills to succeed as an NMC Engineer. They are excited to put their telecommunications and network experience to use in a field that allows them to exercise their theoretical knowledge and expand their skills with continued training. The exciting part of the job is being able to work with different network types, vendors, systems, technologies, maritime markets, use cases and protocols as well as collaborating with various departments. Because the NMC is the tip of the spear for WMS, and the team solves some of the most complex issues in maritime communication, NMC engineers are often promoted to other departments in the company. Having NMC engineers move to other technical teams increases trust, expectations and knowledge of the entire WMS operations team as we have insight into the demands of our cross-functional teams.
Linda Ryan, Director of the Network Management Center, summarized her view of the team saying "The NMC team is as diverse as the network with each individual contributing their specialized knowledge. We consider ourselves the first responders for WMS. We are the first ones to respond to any network fault, and our number one goal is to administer procedures with a sense of urgency to repair and restore the health of our network quickly." WMS President & CEO, Pramod Arora, commented on the critical importance of customer-facing teams, "A business is only as good as the front-line employees. I am proud to have the WMS Network Management Center as the first team our customers encounter when needed. They are a true differentiator for WMS."
Unmatched Network Uptime is Our Standard
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven communication and connectivity are vital necessities across the globe. The ability to stay connected with our families, teachers, grocery stores, friends and work have been essential during this crisis. Just as on land, maintaining connectivity at sea is equally vital. A vessel at sea is essentially a small self-sustaining floating city with complex communication needs without the open real estate that a small city provides. Amid the global pandemic, there are still thousands of crew members onboard cruise ships waiting to be repatriated; all of them need to stay connected with family and friends. When connectivity is lost at sea, it can isolate the ship from the rest of the world.
At WMS, we are proud that across our fleet of 170+ ships we maintain an unmatched core network uptime for our Cellular at Sea service. This ensures that connectivity is there when it matters, and less downtime means fewer headaches for our customers. Our brand is built on the promise of enabling digital transformation shaping the future of maritime by connecting people, data and things through a seamless network. We are successful in executing this promise due to our incredible WMS family including our Shipboard Operations (SBO) team that installs and maintains our network equipment deployed on ships at sea.
The Network Installation and Maintenance Process
Take into consideration the general design and build of a ship. It has a steel hull and steel walls with multiple decks and unique spaces within the ship. Networks must be designed and installed so that connectivity is provided for everyone from the officer on the bridge, to the guest in their mid-deck cabin to the stage manager of the Broadway style show on the lower deck. The onboard network must provide exceptional connectivity even with these unique design considerations.
A WMS maritime network is comprised of telecommunications hardware and software platforms, satellites, antennae, and miles of cable all custom-designed for each vessel. The signal must propagate the interior of the ship (including bulkheads and firewalls). The network equipment must be reliable, weatherproof, and hidden so that it is not visible to guests. Installations on container ships are quicker, but still requires hauling equipment by hand up several decks to the uppermost deck where the equipment is installed.
Shipboard Operations (SBO) is the field and operations team that builds, installs, tests and updates the networks on cruise and cargo ships. It is no easy task installing a maritime network onboard a vessel that can be well over 300 meters long, 15+ deck highs for 7,000+ guests and crew members. SBO Field Engineers require mental focus, physical strength, and endurance to get the job done. These team members experience long hours installing the equipment, midnight testing and many nights away from family. The SBO Field Engineer is like a lone soldier in the field travelling across the globe to the front line hauling 150 pounds of tools, computers and personal luggage.
For network installations on newly constructed cruise ships, work begins in the shipyard. The network equipment for the vessel is shipped to the shipyard and typically consists of at least 5 pallets of equipment. On average there is usually one SBO Field Engineer that completes the entire network installation in a few weeks not including the cabling and Distributed Antenna System (DAS) which can take months.
Once installation of equipment is complete, the engineer must fully test the network. Testing includes checking and cleaning equipment, analyzing signal strength and checking for call quality. Upon completion of all testing, they educate the technical officers on board about the network installation, equipment and support, close out the ticket and travel on to the next job.
Achieving Excellence Is Not Easy
The Shipboard Operations team consistency ranks among the highest within WMS for customer satisfaction scores measured across all operating units. This incredible accomplishment is summarized by Chris Barger, Director of Shipboard Operations and Logistics "Our success is a combination of many things including constant communication with our customers, detailed analysis of issues, support from leadership and strong collaboration among our WMS team. We are here for our customers."
Pramod Arora, President and CEO, Wireless Maritime Services (WMS)
In 2019, WMS celebrated a 15-year anniversary, set an all-time-high in the number of ships deployed with our service, scaled the deployment of our 4G LTE service on cruise ships, and commercially launched a brand-new Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solution in the commercial shipping market. Our team was excited to start 2020 on a high note, with many strategic milestones planned and in sight for the organization. Obviously, the landscape changed in late first quarter, and the challenges kept mounting up. Even when we saw the initial concerns coming out of Asia related to COVID-19 and its impact on our industry, we did not anticipate the length and scale of disruption eventually caused by the pandemic. None of our models predicted a 100% of cruise ships suspending operations for more than a quarter, something that has never ever happened in the cruise industry. Commercial shipping has fared better with 9% reduction in container shipping capacity, but the tactical constraints on activity and uncertainty about near and mid-term future has slowed down progress on many initiatives.
Safety is priority #1
The safety and care of our WMS employees is our top priority; it always has been. To meet the unique demand of our business we have developed COVID-19 procedures for both in-office and remote locations such as ports and ships. All employees are working remotely, and we are communicating with each other at all levels to maintain flow of information and decisions using connectivity tools on a scale we have never experienced before. We acted in a timely fashion, even before various government and health agencies came up with their recommendations and mandates. We thinned out our workforce coming into office locations, eventually going to 100% remote work, asked our employees who had been traveling to self-quarantine upon their return, all before this became a widely adopted practice. We communicated regularly and consistently about the need to use good judgement in day to day activities and have been able to prevent any COVID-19 incidences in the WMS family. We plan to continue to refine our design and processes around office activities as well as in the field to ensure that we keep our employees and everyone they come in contact with safe at all times. Our head of network and operations, Ian McGhie said it best, “We are operating to minimize risk for our team. They should feel safer visiting a ship than a grocery store.”
We are in this together
When faced with crises such as this pandemic, we all fare best when we work together; lend a helping hand when we can and ask for help when we need. We have tried, and will continue, to do our part. Our industry has been hit harder than many others, and opportunities to help each other present themselves constantly. It is common knowledge that tens of thousands of crew members are stuck on their quest to get to their home countries, while maneuvering complex logistical and regulatory issues. On ships where WMS provides Wi-Fi connectivity, we have done that free of charge since the start of the pandemic to help our cruise line customers as well as their crew members. We have kept our cellular network up and running to keep the communication lines open on our cruise ships as they move around the world on different quests, either to take crew members home, or to various locations to maintain and prepare them for post COVID world. We are doing our part to continue to pay our small business suppliers that depend on continued work for their livelihood, such as janitorial services, as we are aware that they are the hardest hit in this crisis. At the same time, I would like to personally thank some of our cruise line customers who have helped us with flexible payment terms so we can improve our liquidity in the short term. Times like these show us who our friends are. We will not forget this gesture.
Re-deploying resources. Re-emerging stronger.
Second quarter of 2020 has been unlike any other time in our company’s 15-year history, certainly the most challenging time in my 7 years at the helm of WMS. However, I believe in the resilience of our business, that of the cruise industry and while we have taken measures to contain costs and maintain our liquidity, we are also utilizing our resources to be prepared for the eventual resumption of our industry and to ensure that our products and capabilities are slated to add even more value to our users in the post COVID environment.
We have redeployed our resources around different activities to improve processes and upgrade our core network, also utilizing this time to modify our technical documentation which in-turn will streamline our existing processes and make our frontline employees more efficient. Our teams have continued their work on new product development as well as working on improving our current product portfolio to make it more attractive and affordable to the end users as we ramp up our business in the second half of the year, in what most experts believe will be a challenging macro-economic environment for a substantial portion of consumer and enterprise segments. We are in the business of connecting people, and if there’s one thing that has continued to shine brightly during the darkness of this pandemic, it is the human connection; it was the way we found our way back to the simplicity of calling each other, talking to each other, and ironically we found our way back to really being there for each other during a time when we physically couldn’t touch each other.
We are now focusing on things that enable us to continue delivering our brand promise to enable digital transformation shaping the future of maritime by connecting people, data and things through a seamless wireless network. We are adapting to the challenges we face today and designing toward the future with determination and resilience. We are committed to our employees, customers, partners and stakeholders in anticipation of smoother sailing ahead.