Starting next June, passengers aboard Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas will be offered WiFi service throughout the ship at the sort of wireless speeds they are accustomed to getting at home or in the office.
Currently, ships at sea, when they offer WiFi, deliver it at painfully slow speeds, a growing source of frustration for a generation of cruisers accustomed to full-time, high-speed connectivity.
The Oasis will be the first cruise ship to be linked to a new satellite network that is expected to deliver fiber-optic bandwidth to the ship, which in turn will be able to deliver maximum-speed WiFi to passengers.
A major motivator for Royal Caribbean to install the new system is the pervasiveness of social media. Increasingly, cruise lines are attracting passengers of a generation that has never known life without smartphones, laptops and other mobile devices. They don’t like being unconnected, according to Bill Martin, Royal Caribbean’s vice president and chief information officer.
Moreover, some of the things they want to do with their devices — most notably using Facebook, Twitter and other social media services — could prove to be a marketing windfall for the cruise line.
For example, Martin said, many passengers want to post a photo on their Facebook page of a show they’re watching at that moment in the AquaTheater. Thus, Royal Caribbean sees high-speed WiFi as a way to encourage organic viral marketing.
A major qualifier in Royal Caribbean’s plan, however, is that the necessary technology — in fact, the entire satellite network — is not yet in place.
The company that plans to launch the satellites is O3b Networks, a U.K. enterprise whose backers include Google, Paul Allen’s Allen & Co., HSBC Principal Investments and several other heavyweights in finance and technology.
The constellation of satellites O3b plans to launch employs a technology quite different from that used by current satellites.
Today, when passengers go online at sea, they are sending packets of information from the ship to a stationary satellite 23,000 miles above the Earth. Those packets then travel from the satellite to a ground station and back to the satellite, a journey that totals about 100,000 miles. When you’re sending even the tens of thousands of packets of data needed for an email, that journey takes time.
“It adds up pretty fast, and that’s why the experience on ships is so slow,” Martin said.
O3b’s technology is radically different. It will employ a constellation of eight satellites launched into much lower orbits — under 5,000 miles. Ships using O3b’s network have two antennae that hand off signals to each other.
One antenna picks up a signal from one satellite, lets go of the signal and the second picks it up. Then the first antenna picks up the signal from the third satellite and so on.
That reduces the transit time, or latency, from more than 500 milliseconds to 130 milliseconds, a time reduction that makes a huge difference in data transmission, eliminating delays that plague voice and data communications at sea today.
For example, if the system achieves the speeds O3b claims, passengers could load Web pages in one-fourth the time currently possible.
That kind of bandwidth means Oasis passengers could stream video or use Skype, although Royal Caribbean has yet to decide what kinds of content it will and will not allow.
What’s more important to Royal Caribbean, Martin said, is that the technology will enable passengers to participate in social networking, which continue to grow in popularity.
Royal Caribbean also has yet to determine pricing for the enhanced WiFi service. Currently, passengers typically pay 65 cents per minute to use the Internet, which means they tend to go online in short bursts of time. With O3b, Royal Caribbean’s passengers could be constantly connected, much as they would be at a resort.
Martin said Royal Caribbean could offer passengers a selection of Internet usage plans, including an unlimited data plan.
The new high-speed WiFi aboard the Oasis will serve as a research platform. The cruise line figures that 8,000 passengers and crew (enabling crew to stay in touch with friends and family is also an important part of this service) comprises a sizable test market for Royal Caribbean to both measure usage and determine pricing. A last frontier for connectivity
The first Internet service on ships showed up at a time when cruise lines and Internet service providers weren’t sure if passengers even wanted to be online. So, when it began showing up on ships as early as 2000, it was available only at certain spots onboard. By 2004, it began to be available shipwide.
Today, cruise ships are one of the last frontiers for a persistently connected society.
Royal Caribbean has been deploying its new ships with pervasive wireless networks, meaning that they can be accessed from anywhere, be it poolside or on the balcony of a cabin, and it is retrofitting its older ships in the same way.
As an intermediary step until the O3b technology is ready, the cruise line has dropped MTN Satellite Communications, the dominant satellite communications provider for the cruise industry, and signed a deal with Harris Cap Rock, which offers higher bandwidth than MTN. Royal Caribbean International passengers will have access to the Harris Cap Rock system next month.
Royal Caribbean has been working with O3b for about a year to work out the details of the new data service. O3b’s name is an acronym for “other 3 billion,” the number of people in the developing world that the company says currently has no Internet access. The company’s founding mission is to provide that access affordably.
In addition, of course, many parts of the developed world, both at sea and on land, are also without Internet access because they lack land lines and cellular signals.
“Essentially, we are trying to connect the unconnected,” said Simon Maher, O3b’s vice president of international carrier accounts.
O3b’s ambitions are global and, to a point, so is its service. Its satellites orbit directly over the equator, which means that they can provide service from latitudes of about 45 degrees north (Halifax, Nova Scotia) to 45 degrees south (Santa Cruz, Argentina). In Europe, its service will cover the Mediterranean Sea. It also covers most of South America and all of Africa and southern Asia.
However, passengers on a Baltic cruise or cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage will be out of the satellites’ range.
Existing data communications satellites use a geostationary orbit, meaning they are always above the same spot on Earth. This requires much higher altitudes, which means they can service a much larger portion of the globe, although at lower speeds, and the satellites themselves are much bigger.
Thales Alenia Space, based in Cannes, France, is building 12 satellites for O3b. Eight are scheduled to be launched from French Guiana in the first half of 2013. The remaining four are scheduled to launch in 2014. SES, a major satellite operator, will operate O3b’s fleet of satellites. Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.