In a hyperconnected, globalised reality, does the concept of getting away from it all even still exist? Whether in the office or at home, we are now constantly plugged in. From baby boomers to Generation Y, people expect to have the world at their finger tips. Abruptly severing the information pipeline amounts to a culture shock of seismic proportions; tech dependency is the new normal.

It is a behavioural trend that landside hotels and resorts, after some initial reluctance, have sought to accommodate through the extensive investment of time and money. Free Wi-Fi is increasingly prevalent, and available at speeds comparable to or exceeding those we have come to expect in our day-to-day lives. The time cannot be too far away that such access becomes as standard
as fresh towels in the bathroom or clean sheets on the bed.

But things aren’t so easy for cruise operators. Sailing in remote regions, away from shore, unable to benefit from existing infrastructure, a dependence upon satellite connectivity has ramifications regarding cost, capacity and speed. One thing is clear, however: a growing number of cruise passengers are unwilling to listen to excuses. Bow-to-stern connectivity is becoming common, but such standards are even more quickly coming to be seen as the bare minimum.

"As recently as ten years ago, we were all touting the virtues of disconnecting from one’s regular life. It could be debated whether that’s a good or a bad thing," says Adam Goldstein, CEO of Royal Caribbean International. "The idea that you could leave your life behind, knowing it would still be there when you got back, once appealed, but the idea of disconnecting from your life for a week or more has now become unimaginable. Appetite for increased bandwidth has skyrocketed faster than the ability of ships to respond."

Rising to the challenge

And this is about a lot more than staying connected to developments back in the office. The urgency for finding a solution is only gathering momentum as a younger generation of cruise guest comes on board. "I have four children and they range in ages from early 20s down to pre-teen," says Bill Martin, chief technology officer at Royal Caribbean. "One son has recently graduated from college and another from high school. Each has a smart device in his pocket and they expect to be connected all the time. This is normal. Those coming to vacation with us don’t expect to have to pay a lot of money to have that level of connectivity at sea. It’s our responsibility to meet those expectations."

"The idea of disconnecting from your life for a week or more has now become unimaginable. Appetite for increased bandwidth has skyrocketed faster than the ability of ships to respond."

In 2012, in an effort to rise to the challenge, Royal Caribbean announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar agreement that would provide high-speed, satellite-delivered broadband service aboard the world’s largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas. At the beginning of 2013, a second contract was signed for Allure of the Seas, a development that should eventually provide more than 16,000 guests, staff and crew members across the two ships with fibre-like speeds at sea.

The platform promises to be four times more responsive than existing and planned GEO satellite systems, capable of enabling broadband services for cruise-line guests and crew on a par with onshore telecommunication standards.

"Cruise ship guests expect the same-quality voice and internet services they experience on land," says Martin. "We are proud to be the first cruise line to offer guests and crew aboard our innovative Oasis class of ships connectivity services that are in a league of their own."

A watershed moment

How they get there is complicated. In fact, the technology behind making this possible is, quite literally, rocket science. Led by the Google-backed provider O3b Networks, four satellites have already successfully cleared in-orbit testing following their launch in June, and commercial service should commence in the fourth quarter of 2013, following the launch of a further four satellites at
the end of September. A third four-satellite launch is planned for 2014.

"We don’t mind the idea of people on board making their friends back home jealous of the experience they’re having."

Creating potential download speeds of up to 350Mbps and upload speeds of up to 150Mbps, the satellites are equipped with steerable spot beams, adjustable in space to track a ship. This means that all of the power available in a beam can be directed to a specific target, in this case the vessel, to deliver high data rates. Real-time tracking of the ship continues throughout its voyage to maintain the link.

"Whatever they use at home, they’ll be able to use on the ship," Martin explains. "You’re an everyday user of Facebook, Google+ or Skype? No problem. That’s the kind of bandwidth we’re talking about. For first-time guests, this won’t come as much of a shock, but for long-time-returning guests, who know what a challenge connecting is, this will be a real watershed moment."

An understandable concern on the part of some operators when it comes to increased access speed is that guests will spend more time in their cabins streaming movies and surfing the web than they will money on on-board retail and facilities. Goldstein’s counterargument is that Royal Caribbean suddenly has unparalleled numbers of brand ambassadors advertising the virtues of those very amenities to a captive audience back home.

"Guests have already been able to do things on the internet, but it can be laborious and sometimes it doesn’t work," he says. "What this promises is the full use of the bandwidth: streaming videos, sending postcards, sharing things on Facebook. We don’t mind the idea of people on board making their friends back home jealous of the experience they’re having. This connectivity removes constraints and permits a real-time connection back to land, and that can only benefit our business and increase guest satisfaction."