Feed on

No-one will be surprised to learn that internet access while I’m on a cruise is something that’s important to me. For one thing, I like to post blog entries during each cruise, and these do seem to be well received: while my normal page hit-rate is around 300 to 350 a day, the figure for the posts that I create while I’m on the cruise I’m posting about is about double that. Another reason for wanting to have internet access is simply to stay in touch with the outside world. Not so much for emails – the great majority of emails I receive are spam – but I practically live in the BBC News website and Wikipedia and frankly they are a part of my daily life that I do not want to give up. Note that I do *not* access work emails while I’m on a cruise!

Of course, internet access from a ship is generally slow and always expensive. I know that for these reasons many fellow cruise enthusiasts prefer to not bother while on board. Some will head off to an internet cafe while ashore – one often-repeated piece of advice is “follow the crew”, because that’s generally where they’re going during their few free hours. For me, however, the time ashore is actually what the cruise is about and I wouldn’t want to spend it in an internet cafe. Also, I’m absolutely certain that Val doesn’t want to spend her time ashore in an internet cafe, watching me surf. In fact she is very different from me in that she feels no need to keep in touch at all while we’re away – her view is that if there’s anything really important going on, either in the world at large or in the family, we’ll get to hear about it one way or another.

So I bite the bullet and buy internet access time on board. I generally buy the biggest package I can because that reduces the cost per minute, and if I buy it as soon as I embark there’s often a bonus of extra free minutes to go with it. I’ve had mixed results, although in general I think it’s been improving over the years. Looking back at previous cruises, I posted about this issue a few times: here’s one from 2011 on Ventura, and here’s another one from Black Watch in 2012. You can see from those posts that my major gripe has been with the question of logging on to the provider’s servers in order to authenticate my access, rather than the slow speed of the connection as such. Nonetheless, faster internet is always better than slow internet, and it now seems that there is a solution that could provide faster connections. It’s not available to all cruise lines yet – it’s reserved for a couple of Royal Caribbean’s ships, and isn’t even available on them until August – but I’m pretty sure that where one line leads the rest will follow sooner or later.

The deal, between Royal Caribbean and satellite communications provider O3b, was first announced in June 2012. At that time the announcement referred to the provision being available from Summer 2013, which they obviously didn’t hit. However, testing has been done on both Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas this spring with successful results, and the new faster service will be available from August this year. It provides a total of over 500mbps, which is 500 megabits per second, not Megabytes. (That’s not that fast, in truth – 500mbps is the same as just over 60Mbps, and for a whole ship that’s not a huge amount of bandwidth.) That could be a misprint – there are other pages that do refer to “500Mbps”. There’s a reference in the RC Blog to Oasis and Allure both requiring new antennae for the service, so if the whole of the fleet requires the new antennae that would explain the delay in rolling it out. There’s also a statement that “Royal Caribbean is developing new pricing plans for added service”. Whether that means to use the high-speed service at all, or to use high-bandwidth services (e.g. streaming video or audio) isn’t clear.

Her’s another link, this time to a web-page describing the service from the satellite provider, O3b. Their solution seems to be that they have a constellation of eight satellites (or it will be eight, soon) in mid-elevation: 8,000 kilometres above the surface of the earth. Conventional satellite internet services use satellites in geostationary orbit 35,000 kilometres above the surface of the earth, and that’s far enough away for there to be a noticeable lag in two-way communications (and internet comms always involves two-way conversations). Presumably it’s that lag that translates into low bandwidth, but it’s also possible that the distance always reduces bandwidth. The O3b satellites, being much closer, experience much less two-way lag and of course must also experience less attenuation. Note also that their main business seems to be (or will be – I get the feeling that it’s still early days for them) internet provision for places where is there is little or no in-the-ground infrastructure: their website talks about the Democratice Republic of the Congo, for example. The Royal Caribbean deal seems to be something rather different from the business they’re targeting, and perhaps also a little surprising.

There does appear to be a fly in the ointment for UK cruisers, however. Here’s a link to another page from O3b’s website. The problem seems to be that because their satellites are in an equatorial latitude, coverage beyond 45° N or S will be limited. That will be OK for most of the Mediterranean, but once you get north of southern France you’re in trouble. Southampton and the English Channel lie at latitudes between 50° and 51.5° degrees North. So sadly this is unlikely to be a solution that will work in northern waters.

2 Responses to “Internet access on cruise ships”

  1. brittsle says:

    I work on a cruise ship and internet is definitely a HUGE problem. Even for crew rates are very expensive and with our ship mostly visiting islands in the Pacific Ocean WiFi isn’t even available in most these places. If only they could find a way to make internet on ships cheaper and definitely faster a whole lot of “problems” would be solved 🙂

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      Thanks also for the insight into life onboard in your blog – that was very interesting.

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