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Cruise lines tap satellite tech for faster Wi-Fi experience

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cruise? O3b satellite system? Wi-Fi?

Gone are days when ocean cruise would mean signing out from the digital world. As Internet surfing becomes a way of life for many, cruise ship operators are looking into ways to provide their guests with on-board high-speed Internet access.

"With the Millennial generation, if you can't provide that kind of connectivity, you could be out of the consideration set," says Bill Martin, CIO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

But delivering that offshore connectivity has proved to be a daunting technical challenge. The standard cruise ship satellite-based service has been slow and pricey, billed per minute. Royal Caribbean is making a big bet on an emerging satellite technology that orbits more closely to Earth than conventional satellites, while the cruise company, Carnival Corporation & plc, recently announced a "hybrid" approach using multiple access technologies and algorithms to switch among in-port Wi-Fi, long-range Wi-Fi and satellites.

Royal Caribbean is rolling out Internet services via next-generation satellites operated by a company called O3b, whose founding mission is to provide Internet access to the "other 3 billion" people in the world who lack connectivity.

CIO Martin says the O3b satellite system will let Royal Caribbean provide fibre-like Internet speeds to its ships in the middle of the ocean, replacing per-minute Internet pricing with an all-you-can-surf flat rate of $22 a day, based on a weekly package, similar to fancy hotel charges. Guests will be able to access any apps they want, including streaming video. The service is available on Royal's newest ship, Quantum of the Seas, a 4,180-passenger vessel that began sailing last week and which the company is billing as a "smart ship" for all its on-board technology. The company's Allure of the Seas ship also offers the service, and it will be on Oasis of the Seas in December.

About 3 1/2 years ago, Royal Caribbean studied its on-board environment, and, Martin says, "Everything kept pointing back to, 'You need broadband access. You need high-speed access.' " So a team of communications engineers went to work on the problem, finding various ways to increase access speeds two-fold and even four-fold. Martin got to be the bad guy: "It just wasn't enough," he says. "It wasn't even close."

Then Royal Caribbean and O3b connected. O3b launched its first four satellites in 2013, but a component problem showed up on one of them. In order to make sure the next four satellites didn't have the same problem, O3b delayed the second launch from fall 2013 until July of this year. All eight satellites are now orbiting and working, at about 5,000 miles above the Earth's surface, as opposed to 22,000 miles or more for conventional satellites. O3b plans to launch a third set of four on December 18.

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