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
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 (see graphic, opposite page).
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.
“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 peo-
ple 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 In-
Connection rates, Garcia added, “come up a lot” in pre-
departure conversations with customers.
“We see it on our message boards: agents asking about
For group biz, connectivity a key consideration
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,
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
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, Page 24).
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.
MTN 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 sys-
See CRUISE on Page 24
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky, the first big ship built with
a dedicated Internet cafe, debuted a dozen years ago. The line says
less than half of its passengers use the Internet onboard.
FEBRUARY 6, 2012