Working out the connectivity conundrum

Providing the same level of passenger connectivity at sea as on land is challenging but necessary in today’s world of instant access. Susan Parker asks operators how they are making it happen

Working out the connectivity conundrum
This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review.

Different cruise lines are taking different approaches on how best to provide passengers with connectivity at sea. There is a limit to the speed taken to perform an internet action as every click has to go via a satellite, up and down. However, providing the best possible service at an affordable price is an area under close scrutiny, with different solutions being implemented or considered.

Reza Rasoulian, VP global connectivity and shipboard technology information at Carnival Corporation & plc, comments: “The core portion of the system is the satellite network. We put it together with several partners. We buy a great deal of satellite bandwidth. The idea is that because of our scale we are able to share this bandwidth so if we have multiple ships in the region on the same network, in port and at sea, we can allocate amounts of bandwidth. Each brand can leverage from the other brands.”

In addition the company has worked hard on optimisation, says Rasoulian. “We continuously look at our network and see how we need to make the user experience better.” Some brands have moved from charging by time to charging by voyage length (or data consumed) so that passengers are not limited to the amount of time they spend online.

Providing the facility for passengers to share cruise experiences with those at home via social networks is also of significant benefit to the brands involved. “A couple of years ago, with Carnival selling the internet by time, it was restraining guests and crew by selling minute increments. We don’t want our guests to feel restrained in any way.”

Carnival is leading a consortium of organisations and companies, but it wants to “hold the key to its activity”, says Rasoulian, adding: “Some of the products we use are on the open market but the way we have implemented the solution is proprietary.”

On the pricing side, research has shown that some passengers only want to be connected to social networks, such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, while others want to be fully integrated and involved. The former can be offered plans at a lower price point which in turn frees up bandwidth to the latter, who will pay more for a full package.

Looking to the future, he says: “What we wish to do is create the technological building blocks to stay ahead of the curve as much as possible. It is a very challenging environment. The ships are pretty much always in service so adding wifi access points and cabling to improve places where there is less connectivity requires a lot of planning.”

In order to boost signals, new VSAT antennas have been installed on every ship in the fleet. A vast improvement is that these can now be accessed from onshore, hence the configuration can be changed from the office. “This is a brand new development which really opens up what we can do on our ships,” says Rasoulian. “Historically we had to send out a technician to the ship but now in one-and-a-half minutes we can change the antenna to work with pretty much any service available.”

Meanwhile providers continue to launch satellites in different parts of the world. “I think the good thing about the satellite industry is that they have noticed that the maritime market is very important strategically for them. Now a lot of major players are investing to drive more bandwidth for the industry, which will have a positive impact on price for us.”

Over at Norwegian Cruise Line, a similar scenario is being played out, as chief information officer Benny Lago explains: “We are partnering with a number of providers of satellite services and increasing bandwidth on our ships. Allowing everyone to be connected is not enough in itself but we also have to provide a fast service. Satellites are miles above the earth so this is not so easy.”

Norwegian is in the process of getting various providers to submit proposals. “It is all about how they make the connection as efficient as possible. As demand grows, providers are increasing resources and technology in this area.”

Lago explains that there are also ways to leverage wifi onshore on popular itineraries, particularly in the Mediterranean and Alaska. The key to this is having the infrastructure available so that the ship is able to connect to the port’s wifi. He says: “The technology onboard is now smart enough to switch from satellite to shoreside wifi.”

Like Carnival, Norwegian has moved away from charging by the minute to a bandwidth approach so that passengers are paying for what they are getting. This will have an added advantage: “As we move to bandwidth, we are likely to have less people streaming as it is more expensive. This in turn will minimise how many times we have to go to the satellite. If we can see that there are sites that are more popular, if we can cache that overnight it will be a better experience.”

In this respect Norwegian is creating an app whereby information is downloaded to be read later. Lago comments: “When we are in the middle of the ocean the only connection is with a satellite miles above the earth. That is the bottleneck. One way we can improve that is by caching content.”

Keeping up with it all is key, says Lago. “Because technology has moved at such a fast pace we are keeping our eyes on what is being introduced and every three years we are going to the table to renegotiate contracts.”

Norwegian is determined to keep up with whatever innovation takes place and implement changes accordingly. “Our goal is to leverage the best guest experience with the equipment we have onboard. There is a plan in place to update the ships depending on who we partner with, which we will know within the next two years.”

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) has taken a different approach by working with one key partner, satellite internet provider O3b Networks. The company’s medium-orbit satellite string can handle 14 terabytes a month, the equivalent of sending or receiving two million digital photographs every week, according to RCCL. O3b claims network latency (the time it takes for data to travel from sender to recipient and back again) four times lower than other providers. High latency is responsible for the delays and time lags that sometimes interrupt a video stream, for example.

When it comes to operating ferries, the needs are somewhat different, as Niclas Ingestrom, chief digital officer for Stena, explains. “With passengers only being onboard for limited periods of time and mostly as a means of transport, it’s more about providing a service onboard than a need to connect them with home, although that too is becoming more important.”

Sharing information about what’s available in terms of restaurants, movies and shopping onboard is key. The company is also close to being able to offer automatic fully digital check-in via an app. At the moment it can be done by phone but the ticket still has to be printed.

A second app allows those at home to check out what’s in the shops onboard, create a wish-list and send it to the passenger onboard, who can make purchases. Implemented three years ago, this has been a “big success”, he says.

The latest development, introduced in 2015, is to enable pre-buying and collection onboard. This way, passengers can benefit from the 25% VAT-free allowance. What Stena has found is that those who pre-purchase also buy more onboard. “This is a good service for customers and good money for us as well,” explains Ingestrom. It also allows the company to put the goods together ashore which in turn means a wider spectrum of articles can be made available than can be held onboard.

In terms of communication, Stena provides free wifi on international voyages but during the summer time, with thousands of passengers onboard, there is not sufficient bandwidth to make it efficient. “To upgrade it would cost so much money,” he says. “The technical part is really complicated.” What the company is working on, however, is for passengers to be able to communicate with each other while onboard without any difficulty.

When it comes to connecting back home, things become more difficult. On the Stena ferries which have a combination of 3G and 4G, passengers are able to connect with land via wifi for about 90 minutes from shore. Further out to sea, going online via satellite is imperfect. “Even if we have all the bandwidth we want, it is impossible to have higher speeds, for example, when using a mouse. Customers cannot use video onboard because it eats up all the bandwidth.”

Stena has been working with Marlink on this. “The bandwidth is the problem,” says Ingestrom. “We can fix this with the satellites but in the end we need more satellites and new technology.”

 

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Susan Parker
By Susan Parker
Wednesday, April 6, 2016