Surfing the waves15 August 2018
For over a decade now, free Wi-Fi has been a mainstay of land-based 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.
Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi 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, Wi-Fi is free and fast as standard. Why, then, does it cost three figures on board a cruise ship?
Even today, most cruise lines charge in the region of $0.75 a minute. And although the prices come down if you buy in bulk, you could still be looking at around $100 for just four hours of Wi-Fi, plus an initial connection fee.
While the average price is falling slightly, and many lines are introducing new Wi-Fi packages, there is still a long way to go before cruise passengers can surf the web like they would on land. Today’s nautical offerings may seem more akin to the trying days of dialup modems.
According to Reza Rasoulian, vicepresident for global connectivity at Carnival, cruise ships are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to the underlying technology.
“Cruise ships are only able to be served by wireless connectivity services; they 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, highorbit satellite. Unfortunately, the pathway between ship and satellite is not always clear. Depending on where you are in the world, the signal may 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 to have Wi-Fi at sea that functions like Wi-Fi 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-based Wi-Fi to Carnival ships,” says Rasoulian. “We have invested in advanced optimisation, modem, multiband antenna and distribution technology.”
He continues, “These investments and diligent engineering have proved successful, and we have closed the gap between the performance we can deliver on cruise ships and land-based resorts.”
Rasoulian 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,” says Rasoulian. “We continue to work with several partners to push the envelope in terms of performance.”
Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi than ever before. In February, Princess Cruise Lines’ ship Regal Princess (owned by Carnival Corporation), tested its MedallionNet service, dubbed the ‘best Wi-Fi at sea’. It was able to establish a new maritime bandwidth record of 2.15GB a 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 a day for each device. As Rasoulian points out, Carnival was one of the first cruise companies to move away from minute-based plans and adopt voyagelength 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 also 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 Quantumclass ships) watch Netflix. Its Surf & Stream package costs $19.99 a day for each device, dropping to $15.99 if you stick to surfing.
It isn’t hard to see why cruise lines are making these investments. In today’s world, passengers of all ages are used to checking their emails around the clock, and for younger passengers in particular, the thought of going without social media may preclude them from wanting to cruise.
“We want our guests to enjoy their cruise experience to the greatest extent, and for many of them, access to Wi-Fi is an important element, even when they’re on vacation,” says Rasoulian. “Fast, reliable and universal access to Wi-Fi enables our guests to keep up with news, stay in touch through their favourite social media applications and interact much more effectively.”
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 or Instagram, it can function as a source of free advertising and offset the costs of the initial 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, which costs $5 a day. While Norwegian Cruise Line has trialled a similar option, called ‘Social Chat’.
U by Uniworld, the newly launched river cruise line for millennials, places a particular emphasis on good Wi-Fi. While river cruises do have a slightly easier job than ocean cruises, they also struggle with an increased burden of expectation. Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge says communication is key.
“We’ve got good Wi-Fi throughout the ship, which is difficult in river cruising because the ship is always moving,” she says. “We made the right investments, and we set-up to give customers what they need. If we’re in an area where we’re not going to have Wi-Fi, we tell people in advance. Communicating this does help them quite a bit.”
The big question, of course, is how much Wi-Fi services are likely to improve and how long it will 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, but rises to $9.99 a day for those who want to stream music or movies. Silversea has also rolled out free, unlimited Wi-Fi, which began 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 vessels with 6,000 passengers. Rasoulian 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. “Right now, most cruise lines charge, and they do so not only to fund the service, but 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 extent.”
It appears that we may have a few years to wait before on-board offerings start to mimic those on land. Given that the first on-board internet cafe 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.