Cruise lines may advertise a vacation that gets away from it all, but many cruise passengers apparently are less concerned with escaping the workaday world than with making sure their cell phones keep them linked to their world while at sea.

The cruise lines are getting the message. Carnival Cruise Lines said last month it would install technology enabling guests on its 22 ships to use their own cell phones anywhere at sea.

Carnival contracted with Wireless Maritime Services, a company whose client roster already includes Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. With the worlds largest cruise line in the game, by next year the majority of cruise ships around the world will have this kind of cellular phone service.

Just two years ago, technology enabling the use of cell phones at sea was still in a testing phase. Rapid deployment has been the result of demand.

Mobile phones are a fact of life, said Rob Marjerison, general manager of WMS. People cant just disappear into thin air for a week.

Onboard Internet connections are already as commonplace as balcony cabins, and even wireless Internet access is increasingly an expectation.

In 2004, NCL became the first cruise line to offer guests on North American cruises the ability to use personal cell phones. Since then, lines have been slower to adopt cell technology than the Internet. But it is catching up.

Meanwhile, the $10-per-minute satellite phone seems to be going the way of the midnight buffet.

Another maritime cellular provider, SeaMobile, is installing service on three cruise lines this year: Silversea Cruises and Oceania Cruises ships are already being wired, and the company signed a contract with Crystal Cruises last month.

WMS was developed as a partnership between Maritime Telecommunications Network, a provider of satellite connectivity to cruise ships, and Cingular Wireless. SeaMobile recently bought Maritime Telecommunications Network and its 49% ownership of WMS.

The technology works by having cellular antennae on ships relay calls to an onboard base station that in turn relays them to a satellite. The satellite then relays the call to a base station on land that routes it through its cellular network. The service turns on once the ship is 12 miles offshore.

Marjerison said it costs about $250,000 to outfit a ship with the technology. The cost is borne by the communications company, which recoups its investment by acting as a local cellular provider, billing the passengers cellular provider for roaming service. The cruise line then takes a cut of what the communications company gets for every call, and the charges show up on the passengers monthly cell phone statements.

Calls cost the passenger around $2 to $5 per minute, depending on their own cell phone provider and, in the case of SeaMobile, on from where the calls are placed. With Oceanias SeaMobile service, calls range from $1.99 per minute in Spain to $3.99 per minute in Libya. The passengers cell phone providers can then tack on additional charges, depending on the calling plan.

MSC Cruises said calls placed through its provider, GeoLink, run about $4 to $5 per minute. Marjerison said calls made on ships with WSM service range from $2.49 per minute for Cingular customers to $2.99 per minute for Sprint customers. Each cell provider sets its own rates.   

Right now, sending e-mail via a hand-held device or a text message by phone is the best value, Marjerison said. An e-mail sent on a BlackBerry costs only a few cents, because it is billed by its size. Connectivity can be a selling point for travel agents.

Mary Jean Tully, CEO of Cruise Professionals in Mississauga, Ontario, said it is a huge relief for families to know they can reach each other when they are away for long periods, especially if they have aging or sick relatives. And businesspeople feel they need to be connected.

It used to be you were out of touch on a ship, Tully said. People would say, I do three or four short trips a year, because I cant be out of touch for that long.

[The technology] allows them the freedom to be able to get away. The reason they can afford their cruise is they can check their portfolios.

Marjerison said that when incentive and business group travelers are on a connected ship, they take advantage of it.

Usage goes way up, he said. Business group travel is a billion-dollar industry. That business was not a viable option to the cruise lines. Now it is.

Some veterans of cruise travel say that this technology is a bonus, but not a necessity.

And some travel professionals remain skeptical.

Its nice, but weve been doing group charters for 24 years, and so far it hasnt stopped people from cruising, said Josephine Kling, president of Landry & Kling, a Miami-based company that specializes in corporate charters and meetings at sea.

Kling said the technology is not a deciding factor for her clients, but people do want to know how to communicate if necessary. The ability to do so, she said, signals to groups that cruise lines are up to date and offer the amenities that resorts do. But in that regard, she said, the quality of meetings facilities remains paramount.  

Some cruise lines still hesitate to enable calls that could intrude loudly upon other peoples vacations.

Preston McKinney of Odyssey Travel in San Antonio has heard no complaints from his clients so far, but he thinks phone service on ships could become a nuisance if cruise lines dont designate cell phone-free areas.

[Guests] would be very irritated if they were sitting and enjoying fine dining and a cell phone goes off, he said. Also in the pool areas because people like to sit there, relax and read.

It is fitting that Princess, whose motto is Escape Completely, is among the cruise line holdouts. 

Its a trade-off, said Jan Swartz, Princess senior vice president of customer service and sales.

Theres the convenience of passengers using their cell phones weighed against the ancillary passenger impact. Its all about striking the right balance between those things.

Princess is currently in the process of testing WSMs service on one of its ships, but Swartz said the line was looking into the possibility of blocking service in certain areas.

Marjerison said that WSM can implement these so-called quiet zones with technology but doesnt recommend it. He suggests instead that cruise lines implement rules.

At a practical level it can be done, but signals bounce around and go through walls, he said. We can accomplish that 99%, but not 100%.

SeaMobile said it can be done and that it has the technology to do it. According to Nancy Brumfield, SeaMobiles chief marketing officer, the company successfully deployed technology on Silverseas ships that created quiet zones.

It is so precise, she said, that if you walk through a door into a quiet zone while on the phone, the call drops.

That ability was important to Crystal management when deciding whether to put cellular service onboard.

Its much more difficult to educate guests on the etiquette and encourage them to follow the rules and speak in a hushed voice than to turn off the antenna in certain areas, said Boban Dragojlovic, Crystals vice president of computer services.

But on Oceanias Insignia, which uses Seamobiles cell service without quiet zones, passengers do follow the rules.

Spokesman Tim Rubacky said the restaurants and main lounge are cell-free zones. The onboard daily says: We kindly request that guests using cell phones be respectful of their fellow guests.

Rubacky said there have been no problems.

Some companies, including Cunard Line, Disney Cruise Line and Seabourn Cruise Line, dont offer cell phone service and have no plans to.

Cherie Weinstein, vice president of group sales and administration for Carnival Cruise Lines, said people expect to be connected today and it is important that Carnival meets that expectation. However, she recalls a time when being on a cruise was an excuse not to be in touch.

When I was on a cruise I wouldnt expect to call anybody -- only in a dire emergency, she said. It was nice. It was a true vacation.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see NCL expands cell phone service fleetwide.

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