Signal at sea

By Donna Tunney

Clients book cruise vacations because they want to relax, visit interesting destinations and have fun. But that doesn't mean they won't stay connected to family and friends while they're away.

Many expect to tweet, text, check email and post pictures to social media sites from the middle of an ocean.

Indeed, the number of iPads, iPhones and other Web-enabled mobile devices in use by passengers at a shipboard lounge often matches the number of rum punches and martinis on the bar.

For cruise lines, it sounds like a simple win-win situation: They invest in an infrastructure to provide reliable Internet connectivity at sea, making them competitive with land resorts, and the rewards come with per-minute rate packages that contribute to onboard revenue streams.

Bow-to-stern WiFi-enabled ships, a rarity even a few years ago, are commonplace now.

But the rocket science behind the technology that enables at-sea Internet service is complicated. Speed and reliability vary from ship to ship, and more than a decade after Internet service was introduced onto cruise ships, slow connections and breaks in service can still perplex passengers.

In simple terms, shipboard access to the very big Internet relies to a great degree on a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), a system of above- and below-deck equipment and devices that serve as conduits to satellites 22,000 miles above the Earth's equator.

A VSAT antenna coupled with the amount of bandwidth a cruise ship has available tell the story of onboard Internet connectivity.

Using a VSAT system, data request signals, which occur when someone tries to access a website from a computer onboard a ship, must travel to an orbiting satellite, bounce to an earth station and then travel back to the satellite before returning to the shipboard computer.

It's a 44,000-mile, roundtrip journey, and while experts say it takes only a half-second for a signal to reach a satellite from a shipboard antenna, the start-to-finish connectivity process is considerably slower than a land-based routing.

Unplugged, but plugged in

Given the prevalence of wireless Internet on ships today, it's surprising to recall that the first big ship built with a dedicated Internet cafe, the Norwegian Sky, debuted a dozen years ago. The Carnival Valor, which launched in 2004, was the first to offer wireless Internet throughout the ship.

Norwegian Sky Internet Cafe"It used to be that just company presidents and CEOs needed Internet access, but now it's everyone," said Vicky Garcia, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Cruise Planners/American Express. "We don't know how to disconnect, even when we're on vacation.

"You may not be actually 'working,' but you're posting a photo on Facebook and answering email," Garcia said. "It's funny how everything has become so viral, like people posting photos of themselves from a cruise even after they've had too many drinks."

And more cruise clients, she added, are asking about the cost of Internet connections before they leave on a cruise.

"Teenage kids for sure are asking, especially if they got stung before," she said. "We had some kids on a cruise, and it was like sticker shock when they saw the prices at the Internet cafe."

Connection rates, Garcia added, "come up a lot" in predeparture conversations with customers.

Brent Horwitz"We see it on our message boards: agents asking about various cruise line policies so they can tell their clients. It isn't just corporate clients asking, either; it's everybody."

Internet pricing is fairly level across different cruise lines, give or take a few cents. Most lines will offer several prepaid Internet packages in addition to a nonpackage, per-minute rate. The more minutes a passenger buys, the cheaper the per-minute rate (see chart at left).

For example, a 100-minute Internet package on Norwegian Cruise Line costs $55, or 55 cents a minute. In some cases, passengers who don't buy a package can expect to pay 95 cents or more per minute.

Joyce Landry, CEO of cruise meetings and incentives firm Landry & Kling, said the newer ships have "stem-to-stern WiFi, while older ones still might have hotspots," meaning locations on the ship, like a lounge or library, where passengers must go to access connectivity.

Anyone who has cruised on a ship that provides Internet service is likely to have seen the MTN logo on the dome that houses a VSAT antenna on the decks of the vessels. Looking like giant, white light bulbs, they're hard to miss.

VSAT antenna on cruise shipMTN Satellite Communications has a corner on the cruise ship market, with every major brand using the Miramar, Fla., company's VSAT system. It also provides a growing portion of satellite-based TV service on cruise ships.

Its infrastructure of geostationary satellites and earth stations provides service to some 600 vessels worldwide, including cruise ships, ferries, cargo ships and government vessels, plus offshore oil rigs and government and commercial aircraft.

"We don't own the satellites, but we lease satellite capacity on a long-term basis from the satellite operators," said Brent Horwitz, senior vice president and general manager of MTN's cruise and ferry business. "The largest ones are Intelsat, SES and Telesat."

The need for speed
The unpredictable and sometimes snail-like speed of connectivity can be frustrating to cruise passengers. Shipboard speed is routinely compared to the old dial-up systems, but there are several issues that determine how fast or slow a connection at sea will be, Horwitz said.

According to Horwitz, the speed of connectivity largely depends on how much bandwidth the cruise line is buying for each ship.

"Satellite capacity is more costly than on land, hundreds of times more costly," he said. Obstacles to speedy connectivity are not unlike what consumers experience in their homes, Horwitz said.

Bill Martin"Even if you have DSL cable at home, it depends on how many people are online," he said. "It also depends to a very great extent on whether the cruise line is effectively using optimization devices that compress files and accelerate the signal." An example of a compressed file, he explained, would be a zip file that can contain many documents or images, such as passenger data that has to be sent to an onshore corporate office.

There are two frequencies that the cruise industry uses to bounce signals onto satellites: C-band and Ku-band.

"The majority of large ships will use C-band," he said. "Ku-band is more susceptible to 'rain fade,' when bad weather interferes with signals to the geostationary satellite.

"The trend is for zero tolerance for down time in 2012, so most ships have dual-antenna systems, sometimes in both frequencies," Horwitz added.

MTN has several earth stations, including its largest in Holmdel, N.J., which covers most of the Western Hemisphere. Earth stations receive and respond to data requests that first hit a satellite.

"It's an enormous infrastructure making the global connectivity possible," he said. In addition to Holmdel, MTN has smaller stations in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington state, which handles the Pacific region. Other stations are in Spain, the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong.

"Above the Earth, we have 32 satellite beams that we access; the North and South Poles are the only areas not covered," Horwitz said.

"What's happening is that the cruise lines no longer really see other cruise lines as their primary competitors," he said. "Land-based resorts are the primary competitor, and what the cruise lines are doing now is upgrading these networks and building out the WiFi infrastructure. They are investing in more bandwidth and using the latest acceleration and compression techniques available."

Carnival Dream Fun HubHe noted that, with cruise lines under pressure to increase onboard revenue, "Internet access is on their radar screen."

In the not-too-distant future, Horwitz predicted, the overall onboard connectivity experience is going to improve because of the cruise lines' actions as well as improvements in satellite technologies.

Regardless of the different factors that affect Internet speed, the absence of a direct competitor to MTN in the cruise market isn't one of them, he said.


"We have a few competitors, but in the cruise industry space we are the leading provider," Horwitz said. "We've created an equation that makes sense for the cruise industry."

Bill Martin, chief information officer for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), agreed.

"MTN is focused on our industry," Martin said. "They are not the only provider of the service; there are some much larger than MTN that [primarily] supply oil rigs, freight carriers and the military. But because there are other players out there, it keeps MTN honest."

The cost of connectivity

Martin said his company continuously looks for ways to provide better Internet access, but it's all about the cost of bandwidth.

"I'd love to tell MTN that they are way too expensive, but it costs a lot of money to [maintain their infrastructure]," he said. "I'm not at liberty to say what it costs us, but it's extraordinarily expensive."

Basically, Martin said, a large ship will buy 4 megabytes of download speed.

"I have twice that much in my own house," Martin said. "It's about half of what the average home would have with high-speed DSL, which would provide at least an 8-megabyte download."

But on cruise ships, data is highly optimized, or compressed, he noted.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Ross Henderson, vice president of onboard revenue, was willing to reveal some cruise line expenses.

"In terms of cost, satellite equipment is a one-time capital expense," he said. "Full WiFi installation for a 3,000-passenger ship would probably cost around $400,000 -- that's for bow-to-stern access. Then you have the ongoing monthly fee for bandwidth, but I don't have those numbers."

He said that the cruise lines get a cut of the Internet access costs that passengers pay for.

Ross Henderson"There is a profit margin on the per-minute packages," he said. "It's challenging to figure it out, and I don't have those numbers, either."

On Norwegian ships, the per-minute price without buying a prepaid package is 75 cents. The line offers a three-tier package, he said, and if a passenger buys a 250-minute plan, the per-minute rate drops to the "37- or 40-cent range."

According to Henderson, less than half of Norwegian's passengers use the Internet onboard. "More people will use it on longer cruises," he added.

Nonetheless, he said, guests use a big chunk of the available bandwidth, and so does the crew. Corporate use is less than that of either the guests or the crew, Henderson said.

"We have ability to allocate certain segments of the [bandwidth] pipe; we try to give first preference to guests."

Henderson said passengers have become accustomed to being charged for Internet time by the minute but said the industry might someday charge by the megabyte.

"It could allow for more bandwidth in that scenario, because by minute, one person could be using more bandwidth than another person, but they're paying the same thing," he said.

The problem, Henderson added, is that "guests are not fully knowledgeable about the size of the Web page [they might be trying to access] and wouldn't know how many megabytes to purchase. But people are becoming more savvy about that."

RCCL's Martin said he increasingly divides passengers into two categories.

"There are technology natives: [younger people] who grew up with the Internet and have no memory of life without it. And then there are people like me, tech immigrants, who have learned to live in the tech world.

Brilliance of the Seas Internet Cafe"For 'natives,' they have a hard time understanding what the world is like without being connected."

And it's true that keeping the price of access high indirectly limits its use, Martin said.

"Bandwidth is expensive to increase," he said. "It's a constrained resource, there's only so much available that we can provide. If we thought guests would buy more of it, we'd be happy to provide it. We're trying to strike that balance."

Meanwhile, the communication needs of passengers continue to evolve, according to Eric Merz, director of guest technology at Carnival Cruise Lines. He noted that just a few years ago, there were fewer passengers with laptops and WiFi-enabled mobile devices.

"Five years ago the primary social media tool was Myspace," he said. "Today, people connect through Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp ... and the list keeps growing."

Merz said that about a quarter of the line's passengers use its Internet services, "but it can vary by itinerary and time of year."

While the connectivity speed can be an issue, Merz said that the majority of guests, especially repeat cruisers, "understand the difference [between land and sea service], so we rarely get complaints about the time it takes to connect with the Web."

For cruise news and updates, follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly 
 

For group biz, connectivity a key consideration

Compared with the needs of vacationers, cruise-ship connectivity issues are very different for corporate or meetings groups, according to Vicky Garcia, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Cruise Planners/American Express.

"Sometimes we can get a package rate for the whole group, but it depends on what that group will be doing onboard," she said. "For example, if it's a training seminar, sometimes they need to connect as a group. We'll ask how much online time they're going to need. In some cases, a decision might be made to do a group connectivity session while the ship is in a port," since land-based WiFi usually is accessible.

The need for Internet access has altered the planning process for corporate groups.

"It's not just, 'How many seats and coffees do we need for our group?'" she said. "Now it's, 'How much Internet are we going to need?'"

Joyce Landry, president of Landry & Kling, the Miami-based cruise meetings and incentives specialist, said it's common nowadays for corporate groups to negotiate a group Internet rate with a cruise line, especially if it's a full-ship charter.

Landry said the prepaid packages represent a good value. "The rates haven't changed much for quite a few years," she said. "Our most current information is that per-minute rates range from 35 cents to $1.25," with the lowest rate offered on a prepaid package.

Landry said she hasn't heard many complaints about onboard service and that a requirement for reliable Internet connections has not been an obstacle to booking corporate groups onto cruises.

"They want to know there's a provision for it, and we ask clients to think in advance about what their needs will be," she said. "Normally, people won't be doing computer work. They'll be answering email."

The one thing Landry doesn't recommend is a ship-to-shore teleconference.

"We can't be confident about that," she said. "We don't want to have to link in to the CEO for an important award, for instance, and have to depend on the satellite to be at the right place to make that happen. And if clients will be making presentations, we advise them to have their PowerPoint already loaded in and ready to go." -- D.T. 
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