Cruise lines are starting to deliver on the promise of unlimited Internet access as they continue to upgrade service that in the past has been often balky and expensive.
As they complete the upgrades, they're creating new pricing plans to replace the metered usage with which guests have become familiar.
Royal Caribbean International is now charging passengers by the day, rather than by the minute. On its most modern ships, it has cut the price to as little as $15 a day for unrestricted use.
For that price, guests on ships such as the Quantum, Oasis and Allure of the Seas can use the Internet 24/7, even for bandwidth-intensive uses such as streaming videos and making Skype calls.
Carnival Cruise Line is also testing unlimited-use plans in pilot programs on a few of its ships, at rates starting at $25 for the entire cruise.
Jim Berra, chief marketing officer at Carnival, said the need to be connected while on vacation and the electronic habits of younger cruisers are two driving factors.
"Very few of us today can completely come off the grid," Berra said at a CLIA press conference in New York. "So it's incumbent on our industry to adapt and invest in innovation to meet that consumer need."
Royal Caribbean's best service options are on the three ships equipped to connect with the O3b constellation of midorbit satellites. Ships use satellites for connectivity when out of range of land. A lower satellite orbit means less transmission time and greater bandwidth.
Royal began testing O3b on the Oasis of the Seas last year, and in November introduced it as a permanent feature on the Quantum of the Seas. In January, Royal made Internet access on the Quantum free to all for a three-week period to test the system's capacity.
Royal Caribbean International President Michael Bayley told a travel agent forum on the Freedom of the Seas that the test exceeded Royal's expectations.
"We've been monitoring the consumption of bandwidth when we let everybody have free bandwidth — the crew, the guests, everybody — and we've only used a fraction of it."
After the free test expired, Royal rolled out new pricing that takes advantage of the increased capacity. For one device, Royal is now charging $15 a day for unlimited access.
The package must be bought for the entire cruise. So it would cost $105 for a seven-night voyage. While that might seem expensive compare with the cost of wireless data systems on land, the same amount would have covered less than three hours of access at Royal's old rate of 65 cents a minute.
The package comes with several key advantages. Unlike other systems, there are no restricted or blocked uses such as streaming video or FaceTime. Guests also don't have to monitor their minutes used or spend time and effort logging on and off the Internet.
Royal has several other packages. An option to use two devices costs $20 a day ($10 for each device). There is also an option to buy a single, continuous 24-hour period for $30, or 60 minutes for $30 that can be used anytime during the cruise.
Royal's 19 ships that do not currently use O3b received a new Internet platform in 2014 that facilitates day-rate pricing. It is the first installation on a cruise ship of the ElevenOS platform developed by Portland, Ore.-based OS Wireless.
OS Wireless said the platform is used for managing portal pages, guest authentication, billing and advanced reporting. Because it is cloud-based it can be easily customized, said OS Wireless CEO Dan Meub, and doesn't consume onboard server space.
Royal spokesman Harry Liu said the line's older ships now have two-device and one-device options, priced at $230 and $190 respectively, for a seven-night cruise. The 24-hour option is $56, and the 60-minute option is $30, he said. Pricing will be refined going forward, Liu said.
Carnival's pilot price structure offers three tiers of service, ranging from basic to heavy. The least expensive option, called "social," is priced at $5 a day or $25 for the cruise duration. It enables social media uses and airline check-in. A "value" package is $16 a day or $60 for the cruise and is intended for email, banking and light Internet use, according to Carnival.
"Premium," priced at $25 a day or $99 per cruise, is optimized for heavier Internet usage like Skype. The packages are in effect on the Carnival Freedom, Sunshine and Breeze, all cruising the Caribbean.
They will expand to a few more ships this spring, said Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen, adding that moving forward "we anticipate adjusting pricing based on voyage length and bandwidth utilization."
Other Carnival ships continue with the traditional metered plan at 75 cents a minute or up to 480 prepurchased minutes for $159.
Berra said Carnival's system for unlimited use depends in part on longer-range antennas on land that reach out many nautical miles. Also, "as the ports around the world are becoming more tech-savvy and more wired themselves, we can leverage local WiFi," Berra said. "So, the combination of all of those technologies is being brought to bear."