The main provider of satellite communications to cruise ships is rolling out a product that it says will dramatically improve the pokey speed of Internet service at sea

MTN Satellite Communications said its MTN Nexus service will start to be available in the second quarter of 2013. It relies on a mix of satellite and terrestrial channels to boost available bandwidth.

This summer, MTN lost a key customer when Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. chose another provider for digital services on Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity and Azamara ships. Its five-year agreement with that firm, Harris CapRock, also relies on a system that mixes satellite and land-based connectivity.

The use of Internet service at sea is growing and changing as passengers seek to remain connected to their jobs and increasingly use social media to show and tell family and friends about their cruise.
Because it has relied on satellites, marine telecommunications has been expensive and slow, as messages are forced to travel into space and back to reach recipients.

MTN President Errol Olivier said a hybrid approach is likely to be more widespread in the future, because just adding satellite capacity to speed up service is too costly.

“If we continuously throw bandwidth at the problem, the end users will never be able to afford it,” he said.

Internet service now costs 60 to 80 cents a minute on many ships, with per minute discounts for prepaid packages.

With Nexus, Olivier said he didn’t think prices would drop that much, but passengers will get a better value.

“We’re looking at a magnitude of difference between the feel and the experience today and tomorrow when this network is rolled out,” he said.

Using MTN Nexus, ships will be able to switch their Internet signals from satellite to land networks about 20 miles from shore in areas where the proper gear has been installed, Olivier said. The satellite bandwidth that ship uses can then be “flipped” to other ships, boosting their transmission capacity.

Olivier said the handoff has been engineered to prevent dropped signals or dead zones.

By using Nexus, Olivier said he expects cruise lines to be able to offer innovative service bundles, such as a package that would provide basic Internet to check emails, plus an unlimited Facebook or Twitter service.

A part of the Nexus technology that has already been deployed is an app that allows for intraship communications by smartphone without resorting to the satellite signal.

By downloading the Connect at Sea app, a family of four, for example, could call and text each other aboard the ship during their cruise at attractive prices, Olivier said.

MTN has briefed cruise lines on Nexus and expects to name customers for the service in the coming weeks, Olivier said.

Olivier said MTN expects to invest $40 million to $50 million over the next five years in developing Nexus.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.

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