Science & tech Tourism & hospitality

Surfing the waves

For over a decade now, free WiFi has been a mainstay of landside hospitality. At sea, however, the internet has traditionally been something passengers have paid extra to access. Abi Millar talks to Reza Rasoulian, vice president for global connectivity at Carnival, about how new investments in satellite technology are boosting passenger access to the internet, and driving costs down.

WiFi on cruise ships has long been a sticky subject. However high-tech a ship professes to be (think remote check-in and geolocation bracelets), many still struggle with basic connectivity. At a time when WiFi on land is near ubiquitous, the equivalent service at sea is often expensive, patchy and slow.

To guests who have bought into the idea of a cruise ship as a ‘floating hotel’, this discrepancy may seem baffling. When staying in an actual hotel, they probably get free, fast WiFi as standard. Why, then, do they have to pay three-figure sums aboard a cruise ship?

Even today, most cruise lines charge per minute of connectivity, often in the region of 75 cents per minute. Although the prices come down if you buy in bulk, you might be looking at around $100 for just four hours of WiFi, plus an initial connection fee.

While the average price is falling slightly, and many lines are introducing new WiFi packages, there is a still a long way to go before cruise passengers can surf the web like they would on land. Today’s offerings may seem more redolent of the bad old days of dial-up connection.

According to Reza Rasoulin, vice president for global connectivity at Carnival, cruise ships are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to the underlying technology.

“Cruise ships are exclusively able to be served by wireless connectivity services (e.g. satellite, LTE, etc.), and therefore are not able to benefit from fibre optic or wireline technologies,” he says. “This makes connectivity services susceptible to weather, and limits their capacity relative to land-based connectivity.”

To clarify, connectivity at sea is generally powered by a single, high-orbit satellite. A cruise ship will have antennae on its top deck, which transmit a signal up to the satellite. The signal returns to the ship and WiFi ensues.

Unfortunately, the pathway between ship and satellite isn’t always clear. Depending on where you are the in the world, the signal might be obstructed by a mountain or a tall building, and can be disrupted when the ship changes course. On top of this, each satellite costs hundreds of millions of dollars – a cost burden that will be borne in part by the end users.

It simply isn’t possible, then, to have WiFi at sea that functions like WiFi on land. Operators looking to improve their offering must find another way.

“Despite these facts, we have made great strides in bringing the speed, reliability and availability of land-like WiFi to Carnival ships,” says Rasoulin. “We have invested in advanced optimisation, modem, multi-band antenna, and distribution technology. These investments and diligent engineering have proven very successful and we have closed the gap between the performance we can deliver on cruise ships and land based resorts.”

He adds that the company uses an array of satellite systems, terrestrial wireless systems and ground stations, with a view to providing the best possible coverage throughout the world.

“Over the years there have been great advancements in satellite technology, including robust high throughput designs that help us provide more bandwidth to our guests,” he says. “We continue to work with several partners to continue pushing the envelope in terms of performance.”

WiFi at a rate of knots

One of these partners is the connectivity provider SES Networks. The company, which also works with Royal Caribbean and Dream Cruises, claims its connectivity ‘rivals that of shore-based fibre optic cables”. It recently added four new medium-orbit satellites to its fleet, with another four due to launch next year.

The upshot is that cruise lines like Carnival can offer faster, cheaper WiFi than ever before. In February, Princess Cruise Lines’ ship Regal Princess (owned by Carnival Corporation), tested out its MedallionNet service, dubbed the ‘best WiFi at sea’. It was able to establish a new maritime bandwidth record of 2.15 gigabits per second, more than quadrupling the previous record.

“MedallionNet puts to rest the notion that connectivity at sea will never be as fast or reliable as your broadband at home,” said Steve Collar, CEO of SES Networks and global experience and innovation partner at Carnival.

Hearteningly, this service is relatively inexpensive – guests aboard the Regal Princess can buy unlimited internet access for as little as $9.99 per device per day. As Rasoulin points out, Carnival was one of the first cruise companies to move away from minute-based plans and adopt voyage-length solutions.

“This reduces or removes the friction for our guests,” he says. “In general the cost of the service is supported by the guests actually using the service, and we provide more bandwidth and technology to accommodate the increasing demand.”

Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, claims that its Voom service is the ‘fastest internet at sea’. It enables guests to stream music and movies, upload pictures, video chat via FaceTime or Skype, and (on Oasis and Quantum class ships) watch Netflix. Its Surf & Stream package costs $19.99 per device per day, dropping to $15.99 per day if you stick with surfing.

It isn’t hard to see why cruise lines are making these investments. These days, passengers of all ages are used to checking their emails around the clock, and for younger passengers in particular, the thought of doing without social media may preclude them from wanting to cruise.

“We want our guests to enjoy their cruise vacation experience to the greatest extent, and for many of our guests, access to Wi-Fi is an important element even when they are on vacation,” says Rasoulin. “Fast, reliable, and pervasive access to Wi-Fi enables our guests to keep up with news, stay in touch through their favorite social media applications, and interact much more effectively.”

#nosignal

There’s also the fact that shutting off social media access means shutting off a major marketing tool. If passengers can easily post pictures on Facebook, Instagram etcetera, it can function as a source of free advertising, offsetting the costs of the investment.

For this reason, some cruise lines offer designated social media packages, enabling guests to access low-bandwidth social applications on the cheap. Carnival and Holland America offer such a package on selected cruise ships, for just $5 a day, while Norwegian Cruise Line has trialed a similar option, called ‘Social Chat’.

U by Uniworld, the newly launched river cruise line for millennials, places a particular emphasis on good WiFi. While river cruises do have a slightly easier job than ocean cruises, in that they are closer to land, they also struggle with an increased burden of expectation. CEO Ellen Bettridge says communication is key.

“We’ve got very good WiFi throughout the ship, which is very difficult in river cruising because the ship is always moving,” she says. “We did the right investment and set-up to give customers what they need, and if we’re in an area where we’re just not going to have WiFi, we tell them in advance. Communicating that does help them quite a bit.”

The big question, of course, is how much more WiFi services are likely to improve, and how long it’ll take before free internet is offered as standard.

Already, some cruise lines are dipping their toes in these waters. Earlier this year, Oceania Cruises introduced its new Wavenet high-speed internet, which is free and unlimited across all sailings (rising to $9.99 a day for those who want to stream music or movies). Silversea has also rolled out free unlimited WiFi, starting in April 2018.

However, it is worth pointing out that the ships in question are small, and have an easier task on their hands than ships with 6,000 passengers. Rasoulin adds that to call their offering ‘free’ is slightly disingenuous.

“Some brands offer free Wi-Fi today, but in reality, the guest is paying for it as a part of the ticket price,” he says. “Until now, most cruise lines charge and do so not only to fund the service, but also to manage demand. I believe more and more cruise lines will look into models to offset the costs which would ultimately result in subsidisation of the Wi-Fi services to a certain, or full, extent.”

It appears, then, that we may have a few years to wait before on-board offerings can truly start to mimic those on land. Given that the first on-board internet café debuted as early as 1999, this may seem like slow progress. However, connectivity remains a hot topic throughout the industry, and there is an increasing consensus that new technology is worth the investment.

This article appears in the 2018 vol 2 edition of World Cruise Industry Review 

 

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