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Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into helping passengers stay connected during a cruise.

Courtesy of Silversea Cruises

Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into helping passengers stay connected during a cruise.

Improving Internet connectivity at sea

Cruise passengers can expect faster, more reliable service in years ahead

Today’s tech-savvy cruise travelers want to know: When are we going to get decent Internet speeds at sea?

Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into connectivity at sea.
It's no small feat for a moving ship to stay in continuous contact with distant satellites.

Below we’ll explore that subject — including significant improvements that are just coming online or just around the bend. 

Most small and medium-sized vessel operators are at the very beginning of their digital voyage. They are fully aware that their existing communications infrastructure is not sufficient to realize their goals or their customers’ expectations of improved connectivity. And the largest cruise lines are constantly rolling out new enhancements.

So let’s step back and take a look at the challenges of getting to that dream destination of always-on connectivity during a cruise.

Windstar Cruises' power yacht, Star Legend, debuted in May 2015.
Courtesy of Windstar CruisesWindstar Cruises' power yacht, Star Legend, sports telecom transponders on its top deck.

Is connectivity the problem?

It seems self-evident, but one big reason for subpar connectivity on cruise ships is that they’re moving. Cruise ships face the same challenges as other maritime vessels as well as aircraft.

Communication requires ships to point their antennas at the correct satellites to get that feed. On the ground, you can generally do that once and all is well. At sea, the ship locks on to a medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellite thousands of miles away through stabilized or electronic beam control, and maintaining a constant feed is tricky. Sometimes it’s necessary to swap between beams. That said, the tools are already in place to make this work well and reliably, without the need for an engineer on hand.

So, what's the problem? Coverage limitation is a big factor. For example, cruise ships that voyage to the extremes of our planet, such as the Arctic and Antarctic, are farther away from most satellite traffic. Then we have throughput, capacity and cost per bit, and that is where systems still struggle. 

Is hardware cost an issue for ship owners?

One of the historical reasons for cost being cited an issue is in the past was that data usage was extremely expensive, leaving ship owners and users with a high-cost, low-performing solution for connectivity. However, with new high-throughput satellites combined with the satellite industry’s significant global drive to lower the cost of connectivity per bit and to take advantage of innovations in user terminals, we are seeing the overall cost being significantly reduced.

Connecting a vessel is no longer the significant investment it once was. On larger vessels, satellite connectivity can be almost insignificant compared to operational costs such as fuel, so this is not a limiting factor today.

What is the satellite industry doing about it?

The satellite industry has making major strides to improve Internet service at sea in recent years. This includes initiatives from satellite operators and service providers and innovations from technology providers.

Here’s a sampling recent developments:

Those funny-looking round objects on the top level of cruise ships contain telecommunication technologies that communicate with medium Earth orbit satellites.
Special to CruiseableThose funny-looking round objects on the top level of cruise ships contain telecommunication technologies that communicate with medium Earth orbit satellites.

Better networks

High Throughput Satellite service provides much better throughput with a lower cost per bit. It is now firmly in place with cruise operators able to fully benefit from the advantages it affords.

Advanced satellite technologies, such as those being pioneered by O3b mPOWER, will be rolling out in the coming years, providing probably the highest-capacity, farthest-reaching and most flexible system ever proposed.

This kind of next-generation technology offers the ability to deliver multiple terabits of throughput globally using system intelligence to provide total flexibility to control more than 4,000 beams per satellite in real time. The overall result will be tailored services delivered virtually anywhere via more than 30,000 beams available system-wide. The O3b mPower constellation will provides unrivaled coverage of plus or minus 50 degrees latitude for nearly 155 million square miles (400 million square kilometers).

Better technology

On the technology front, we now have auto-pointing antennas with multi-orbit/multi-band and multi-network architectures contribute to improved processes, better tools and more powerful user terminals.

To ensure that quality is maintained, one of our members, QuadSat, has innovated a way to use drones to make sure antennas are operating at optimal capacity by performing live measurements on site. Enabling a cruise ship’s antenna system parameters to be checked, in harbor or at sea, makes it easy for a satellite engineer to view and troubleshoot problems and get that system back on air as soon as possible.

Cloud technology is also helping modernize the system, making it much easier to deliver services to customers. This includes using cloud technology both on board the cruise ship and integrating both satellite and terrestrial technologies to connect to other cloud sources.

A passenger takes advantage of free Internet in the atrium of Viking Sun.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableA passenger takes advantage of free Internet in the atrium of Viking Sun.

Ensuring quality

Product quality has a massive impact on connectivity. If you are using poor-quality products, your connection will suffer. Cruise operators are constantly encourages to make sure the products in use are up to the task, something that can checked against industry standards, such as the Type Approval system provided by the Global VSAT Forum.

The British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat is well known as one of the largest satellite operators for maritime customers. One thing the company does extremely well is ensure product quality and service connection throughout its network. This insistence that all customers can only use equipment that stands up to its own very stringent tests means that errors are greatly reduced.

Will LEO be the cure?

While most satellites in use currently have a mid-range orbit, a promised influx of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites may seem like a quick cure for connectivity woes. But LEO has some potential downsides. Having a huge number of low earth orbit satellites added to the skies could potentially cause increased problems if not handled well.

Handled properly, LEO satellites offer the potential for the cruise industry to achieve both better coverage and low-latency connections. However, cruise operators shouldn’t be waiting for LEO to get decent service — that should already be achievable today.

Keep in touch with loved ones by visiting the staffed throughout your travels aboard Seven Seas Mariner.
Michel Verdure / Courtesy of Regent Seven Seas CruisesGuests can keep in touch with loved ones by visiting the Internet cafe on Seven Seas Mariner.

What is missing?

For a cruise ship to really take the advantage of all these great technology innovations, the addition of artificial intelligence systems is a must. This would allow cruise operators to “preload” content at port onto the onboard cloud by accurately knowing what their passenger requirements would be in advance of the cruise. The same technology could then be applied to managing the services on board by allowing seamless connections between GEO (geostationary equatorial orbit), MEO and LEO to optimize throughput, speed, coverage and latency.

Networks now and, certainly in the future, will be complex. AI techniques are probably going to be the technology that can manage this to deliver what the cruise industry needs and what cruise passengers are already demanding. 

Travelers want to stay connected. Decision-makers in the communication industry must embrace the challenge at every level to ensure that 27 million cruise passengers each year can remain connected to the digital world during their travels.

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Martin Coleman
Martin Coleman is executive director of the Satellite Interference Reduction Group.