Connecting to the internet is something we take for granted - most of us can do it anytime anywhere, and get annoyed when we can't. However, there's something about being on a ship in the middle of the ocean that can give pause to even the most avid web surfer. It's understandably difficult to bring a connection to such a spot - but the situation is improving!
Recently, several cruise lines have announced new internet packages and/or faster onboard internet connections. You might have spotted on the blog articles about Royal Caribbean's VOOM high-speed connections, Carnival's new WiFi packages for Australasian cruisers, and P&O's similar new menu of internet offerings. However, although prices are dropping and connections becoming faster and more reliable, there is a long way to go before we get to the level of onshore internet!
We took a look at the current state of affairs when it comes to cruise ship internet offerings, the technology which allows you to stay social on the media and send off some emails even when sailing the seven seas, and the challenges which are faced by cruise lines trying to bring WiFi to their passengers.
Satellites and their limitations
Satellites are necessary for internet access on a cruise ship - just as those who work and live in remote areas away from cellular and data networks might use satellite connections. Mostly, geostationary satellites are used which orbit in a fixed position relative to the earth.
Keep a look out for the domes on top of the ship which will generally hide satellite antennae which transmit signals from ship to satellite and back to earth, in lieu of a cable or a cellular network with transmission towers. Despite the long distance, the transfer of data takes just seconds - the speed of which is called 'latency'. Generally, satellite internet is faster than dial up, slower than most land-based connections!
A connection via satellite requires a clear and unencumbered line of "sight" between the satellite and antenna. Extreme weather can affect it, as can major ship movements. When in port, tall buildings can block a signal - and in fjords, mountains can do so, although it seems counterintuitive that the signal would get worse closer to land. Even parts of the ship like funnels can interrupt the signal depending on the relative location of the satellite.
Congestion is also an issue when it comes to satellite connections. The more people who are using the same path, the slower it can become.
New technologies: faster, cheaper
There's no getting around the fact that using the internet on a cruise is always more expensive than on land. In the past it has often been billed by the minute, often at a rate of around USD$0.60-$1, or sold as packages of a certain number of minutes' access or megabytes.
One example of improved technology is the new satellites developed by O3B, a new provider offering fiber-like latency with its state of the art satellite network. Born out of a project to provide a nationwide telephone service in rural Rwanda, the company's name refers to the "Other 3 Billion" people with limited or no access to high-speed internet. The groundbreaking "satellite constellation" orbits at a low height of 8062 kilometres, less than a quarter of the height of geostationary satellites which reduces latency greatly. Royal Caribbean has jumped on the bandwagon early, engaging the startup company to provide faster internet first on the Quantum of the Seas and then on the rest of the fleet.
Carnival's updates to its internet service took a slightly different tack, incorporating land-based wireless antenna along major cruise routes which reach up to 40 miles offshore as well as satellites for a hybrid system to increase connection speed for passengers. This has proved very effective, and will be used across several of Carnival Corporation's cruise brands.
There is another factor working in the favour of internet-savvy cruise lovers: as more and more people have the desire to be connected at sea and are willing to pay for it, bulk buying can mean that internet access on ships is more cost-effective.
Current pricing on popular lines
Now, many cruise lines are beginning to offer daily charges for a variety of different options - social media only (requiring little bandwidth), unlimited access including streaming, and variations in between. Quite a few are moving away from the per-minute pricing to offer something much more affordable for heavy users.
Currently in Australia, Carnival cruisers can get a social media package for AUD$15 a day, a value package for AUD$30 a day which includes all sites but no streaming, and can pay AUD$50 per day for a fast connection with no restrictions - something which wouldn't have even been possible not so long ago! Royal Caribbean's VOOM offers basic internet usage at USD$12.99 per day, with discount for family packages, and a "surf and stream" option for USD$17.99 per day, also discounted for family packages and additional devices. P&O Australia's packages are a little more complicated, with different options for cruises of different lengths and prices per cruise or per day - take a look at them here.
Next time you sail away, you'll know you have high-tech satellites to thank for your social media usage and web surfing. Find a cruise to take you away, and stay connected to those you've left behind!