The difference a true differentiator can make in at-sea communications

Wireless Maritime Services’ CEO Pramod Arora answers the five questions every cruise line executive should be asking themselves about wi-fi

The difference a true differentiator can make in at-sea communications
Arora believes that having the best possible mobile connectivity onboard can make a true difference to the guest experience

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Mobile connectivity in today’s cruise environment is fast becoming a differentiating factor in not only how guests pick their cruise line, but also in deciding whether to forgo cruise in favour of a better-connected land based vacation. The wi-fi market has low barriers to entry, which has resulted in a fragmented marketplace crowded with many providers, sometimes leading to sub-optimal results.

As such, there are some key questions cruise executives should be asking themselves:

Do we have the right wi-fi network design?

Designing your at-sea wi-fi service right on paper is the first critical step to unlocking maximum value. A cruise ship environment is an engineering challenge, and it’s naïve to assume that a simplistic model that works in a cafe would suffice for what is essentially a compartmentalised floating city with metal walls. An optimal understanding of what a quality design can return in terms of revenue is critical for cruise lines. Having a correct design mitigates the need for costly rework, ensures an enjoyable user experience and reduces customer complaints. WMS is a leader in maritime communication service design, and can help with wi-fi design for newbuilds or redesigning a vessel’s existing service.

How do we know if our wi-fi network is performing optimally?

A finely tuned wi-fi network will give the best possible user experience, as well as the greatest potential for generating revenue. Equipment selection and configuration is the foundation of a high-performing network. Channel planning, output power and many other metrics can also have a huge effect on the performance of a wi-fi network. A poorly configured network will result in unsatisfactory user experience, even with the best equipment.

We often come across suboptimal wi-fi networks on cruise ships, and there have been instances where our engineers have recommended quick changes to the wi-fi networks designed and managed by others, and immediately improved quality and financial performance. Our network professionals have terrestrial network tools adapted to harsh maritime radio frequency environments that can help ensure optimally performing network operation. WMS provides onsite services such as fibre testing and cleaning, re-termination of damaged cabling and heat mapping.

Can we keep up with increased demands, changing standards and rising security risks on a sustainable basis?

Setting up a network and getting internet access is important, but not enough. Some significant challenges may only arise at the launch of the network. The number and type of devices that users want to connect to wi-fi networks are increasing daily – think Amazon

Echo or Google Home. With that comes the challenges of managing network capacity and security.

The standards for wi-fi networks have evolved slowly, but are becoming more complex and are now converging towards cellular network standards. As cellular and wi-fi networks converge to deliver 5G capabilities according to the new 3rd Generation Partnership, a keen understanding of both technologies will allow operators to overcome the added complexities of the next generation of networks and deliver optimal network speeds, capacity and performance. Cruise lines need professional management of their networks. There are critical performance and security measures that must be constantly monitored and managed to ensure guests’ devices are protected from unwanted intrusions and their connectivity experience is optimal.

As a provider of both cellular and wi-fi services and being majority owned by the world’s leading communication provider, WMS brings a level of professionalism that creates a real competitive advantage for your cruise line.

Is our network being monitored in the most optimal way for us and our guests? 

Can your wi-fi vendor or internal resources receive alarms on a true 24/7 basis? Can they remotely diagnose and troubleshoot a wi-fi outage or service disruption? Can they repair and restore service in a timely manner? Service outages diminish profitability and guest experience. A highly skilled team of engineers and technicians can quickly and accurately diagnose and resolve a wide range of diverse network issues on a constant basis. WMS has best-in-class alarm monitoring systems to provide real-time network fault and performance information.

How do I maximise financial performance for my entire mobile communication ecosystem, including cellular and wi-fi?

The cruise industry has some misconceptions when it comes to managing wi-fi and cellular technologies side by side. One is that wi-fi is a preferred product because the business model does not involve revenue share. Another is that cellular revenue cannibalises wi-fi.

I can confidently say that these perceptions are not grounded in facts and empirical data. Wi-fi technology operates at high frequencies, making range, penetration and interference issues real challenges. The capital expenditure needed for an average quality network is very high, and when you add on costs for high bandwidth usage and other costs, the real profitability of wi-fi service is lower than cellular service for cruise lines.

But preferring wi-fi at the expense of cellular is damaging and short-sighted. In all the surveys we have done over the years, the user base has distinct segments that prefer one or the other technology, with some preferring to use both at the same time. Creating artificial boundaries to force users into a particular technology leads to guest dissatisfaction. The penetration of both technologies today hovers at around 20-30% each. We should be more focused on doubling or tripling that penetration, rather than on moving users from one technology to the other. In short, treating these technologies as competing products has the unintended consequences of lower financial returns and guest satisfaction. Here’s what I want cruise line executives to reflect on. First, guests have different needs and preferences, and there is very little evidence that those needs create cannibalisation. Second, even if there was, evidence shows forcing users towards wi-fi by degrading cellular technology or pricing isn’t more profitable and is probably just creating unnecessary guest dissatisfaction while losing revenue. Finally, this issue pales in comparison to what can be achieved in revenues and guest satisfaction if you focus on improving quality, access and creating an ecosystem where guests can be online in a seamless and unconstrained manner on whichever technology meets their needs the best at the time. The upside for the industry in both financial returns and guest satisfaction is significant.

Essentially, onboard mobile connectivity can be a true differentiator for your organisation. WMS can help you to improve the quality of your wi-fi networks by keeping them safe and secure, help you keep up with evolving wireless technology, and enhance the revenue and margin performance, while at the same time raising your guest satisfaction by creating an ecosystem coupled with the cellular networks that provides an ideal broadband experience for your guests.

I’m happy to start a dialogue on the topic with you.

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley
15 May 2018