The connected cruise – embracing the data cloud

23 March 2015

Taking a cruise traditionally meant getting away from it all, but nowadays more passengers feel that an important part of the relaxation process is knowing that they are still connected to their families – or even their work colleagues. Cruise lines are therefore looking to improve connection speeds and enhance connectivity through increasingly innovative methods. Jim Banks speaks to two of the industry’s most high-profile CIOs, Carnival Corporation’s Ramon Millan and Royal Caribbean’s Bill Martin, about how cruise lines and their passengers benefit from staying connected to the data cloud.

In November 2014, Carnival unveiled the cruise industry's first-of-its-kind hybrid wireless network - an enhanced high-speed service that will eventually be rolled out to all 101 of its ships across its nine brands. It claims that this will revolutionise how millions of its passengers stay in touch during their cruise, and generate even greater interest in cruise vacations, especially among the tech-savvy millennial generation for whom connectivity is perhaps a decisive factor.

The traditional notion that passengers take cruises to disconnect from their daily lives and relax in peace is being challenged.

"Guests can decide to escape or remain connected and it is up to us to provide them with the choice. Now, connectivity has become more about family and friends than about work. Passengers want to access social networks, they want to stay in touch with their parents and their friends. They can relax and enjoy the weather and the on-board facilities knowing that people can reach them if they need to," says Carnival's senior vice-president and global chief information officer, Ramon Millan.

"The smartphone will soon be an essential part of the cruise experience and the industry is investing in mobile solutions for connectivity and to facilitate parts of the on-board experience, so it is offering more reasons for people to have their smartphones with them. That is why the hybrid model is a great move forward," he adds.

"Ships move and satellites don’t follow them. Obviously we can’t use wires to connect ships. No technology covered everything we wanted, so we decided to use all technologies together instead of using the same solution in port as in the middle of the Atlantic."

The obvious solution to facilitating on-board connectivity is to use satellites, but there is often a problem with latency (the speed at which data arrives after a request from an internet-enabled device), so the hybrid model uses satellites as part of a much broader and more complex portfolio of technologies. Carnival's core connectivity network - [email protected] - will incorporate a network of strategically located land-based antennae along cruise routes and long-range Wi-Fi as well as satellite connectivity. It will provide more stable internet connectivity by seamlessly switching between these different technologies to deliver the highest-possible bandwidth capacity and signal strength. When complete, it will increase the speed of internet connection on its ships by a factor of ten.

"A couple of years ago, we realised that there would be a lot of changes in the applications people want to use when they are on our ships. So, to offer them the same experience they are used to would require a lot more broadband capacity. After all, two years ago Facebook did not have embedded video, so now we need a lot more bandwidth if people want to look at Facebook. We were using satellite then but when we started to look at the benefits and constraints of different solutions we found that no single technology was perfect," Millan explains.

"Ships move, and satellites don't follow them. Obviously we can't use wires to connect ships. No technology covered everything we wanted, so we decided to use all technologies together instead of using the same solution in port as in the middle of the Atlantic. The hybrid system gives guests the best experience in each specific geography," he adds.

Development and delivery

The technology behind the hybrid systems is complex - both onshore and on the ships - not only because the switching between connectivity solutions needs to be swift and seamless, but also because the system making the choice of when to make the switch must take into account many variables.

"Depending on where you are, you can access different technologies, so the on-board system needs to assess what is available and choose the best one. It needs to assess the impact on the service on other ships in the area that are using the same cloud of bandwidth, and it also needs to assess how long a particular technology will support the best guest experience - if it has to switch two minutes later it may not be the right one. So, there is a very complex algorithm working backstage," says Millan.

To develop the hardware and the algorithm, Carnival went to best-in-class providers of technological and consulting expertise. It presented the challenge to the likes of Cisco, IBN and Ernst & Young, which worked together to examine what are, in some cases, emerging technologies and take them from the laboratory into the real world.

"You need all vendors working together to fine-tune a complex system of technologies, which is a big challenge," Millan adds.

Different strokes

Carnival's hybrid system is just one solution - albeit a unique one - that has come from an industry-wide effort to deliver the connectivity passengers have come to expect. Royal Caribbean, for instance, has taken a different approach that is based purely on a satellite network. Having moved its major North American brands from MTN Satellite Communications to new provider Harris CapRock, and consequently increasing its fleet's capacity eightfold, it also implemented new software-as-a-service connectivity, so the servers do not reside on its vessels but instead remain shoreside.

During the transition to the Harris CapRock environment it also began working with start-up company called O3b - an acronym for the 'other three billion' people on the planet who do not have access to high-speed internet - to deliver fast, focused and concentrated capacity to ships.

"It was three years in the making and it is spectacular," says Bill Martin, CIO at Royal Caribbean Cruises. "When I decide to call it a day and look back on my career, it will be one of the top three things I will have accomplished. We engaged with O3b three years ago when we saw what they were trying to do with building cellular networks in remote parts of Africa and get them connected to the internet. The satellite options were too slow and fibre options too expensive so the founder started looking at the idea of bringing a constellation of satellites closer to the earth, where the connection would be faster.

"We invested time, energy and money in it – and it worked. So we have about 300 times the capacity on our ships compared with a typical cruise ship and a fifth of the latency. So, it is better than most people’s home internet."

"Most of their satellites are located around the equator, which happens to be where most of our cruises are, so we asked about pointing those satellites towards our ships rather than at ground stations to bring the high-speed, low-latency service to us. We invested time, energy and money in it - and it worked. So we have about 300 times the capacity on our ships compared with a typical cruise ship and a fifth of the latency. So, it is better than most people's home internet," he adds.

The uptake of the service among passengers is a resounding validation of the notion that people now want to stay connected while they relax on their cruise.

"We had to find something that was fundamentally different and we now know it is the right thing. In January, we gave it away on Quantum of the Seas to see how much capacity we could drive and we saw around 5,000 devices connected to the internet at any one time; and we were measuring in terabytes the amount of capacity that was going just to social media sites," Martin adds.

Freedom to roam

Enabling passengers to access faster internet services is the key driver for the investment in advanced connectivity solutions, particularly as cruise lines try to attract younger passengers. There are, however, many benefits for cruise lines to improve other components of passenger experience through mobile technology.

"Technology is a huge factor in our service to guests. I can learn from what people do on each trip to make sure they get the right offers and promotions for on-board facilities. I can deliver a better experience by mining the database.

Beyond that, however, I can also let guests access those facilities remotely. Take the casino as an example. Now, the technology allows people to play or gamble while they are at the bar or by the pool. They can even play against guests on other ships. Those kinds of thing come from on-board connectivity, and mobile apps are increasingly important for on-board service," says Millan.

"On Princess and Costa there is now a service that allows people to call or text other people on the ship using our LAN. There is a portfolio of technologies that allow people to customise their vacation, and this is an important area for development," he adds, "but the thing of which I am proudest is the hybrid model.

It allows people to connect in a way that optimises their experience and it shows that we are all about implementing a customer-centric model for connectivity."

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