As laptops and mobile phones have evolved to not only look better but perform many more multimedia tasks than their predecessors, so the options for communications at sea have improved substantially too.

In addition to emailing and instant messaging available in internet cafes, onboard wireless internet (Wi-Fi) is now expected, as is being able to pick up a signal on your mobile phone. For Tim Rand, chief information officer for Sliversea Cruises, these services represent a change in passenger expectations.

“A year ago, these were a selling point for passengers, but now it’s the norm,” he says. “They want to be able to take pictures and put them on Facebook or update their blog entries. Instead of just a simple email, people now want to be able to upload pictures and movies, and the bandwidth requirements are phenomenal.”

In touch, at sea

The first generation of onboard Wi-Fi encountered infrastructure challenges such as the ship’s steel construction interfering with the wireless system.

Delivering onboard coverage generally meant fitting remote antennas around the ship, including the tight spaces of the cabins and lounges.

“Onboard Wi-Fi is now expected, as is being able to pick up a signal on your mobile phone.”

Today the challenge is about speed and reliability. Communicating at sea comes down to the simple fact that those onboard want to communicate in the way they would in the comfort of their own homes. Typically, the pricing options onboard are two-fold: a basic pay-as-you-go rate or pre-paid internet time plans, often with a one-time activation fee.

However, the freedom for passengers to make or take calls around the ship raises a particular problem regarding the evolution of onboard communications. Just as other methods of mass transport such as trains have ‘quiet zones’, so there has been an increasing need for places devoid of ringtones and people straining to be heard.

As Bill Roberts, director of systems operations for Crystal Cruises points out, the importance of being free from communications technology is just as important as being able to use it. “We have a number of areas designated as quiet zones,” he says. “We also have technology that will allow us to turn off the coverage in these areas so mobile phones will not work.”

Rand defends this near contradiction of onboard communication. “Guests will quite happily have their mobile phone on their hip to make calls, but will not necessarily want to be disturbed by other people when they are sitting having dinner, for instance.”

Nonetheless, the demand for cellular service onboard, whether a blessing or a curse, remains especially popular, whether its a young family demographic where one or both parents needs to stay in touch with work, or for corporate clients who need to send that text, make that call or clinch that deal via email.

In touch, out at sea

Dialling from ship to shore has traditionally been an expensive option for passengers. Guests with mobile phones therefore have another choice, with billed roaming charges dictated according to their contract, or when the ship is within a certain distance of shore and the cellular at sea systems have been turned off by local wireless networks, as permitted by their home service provider. Typical roaming charges are in the range of $2.50-$5.00 a minute compared with the $6.99-$9.99 range for ship to shore calling. “We think using their own phones is the best option for guests,” says Roberts. “Many of our guests are regular travellers and are accustomed to international dialling and calling plans.”‘

As Rand notes, communication at sea also provides an extra revenue stream. “One of the other benefits is that we are able to share information,” he says. “There is much more visibility about what is going on onboard ship.”

“The demand for cellular service onboard, whether a blessing or a curse, remains especially popular.”

PDAs and other handheld devices from which you can email as well as make calls also provide guests with a cost-effective option, allowing a number of functions in a relatively short space of time.

With the proliferation of mobile phones among guests and crew, it seems the future lies in roaming agreements being leveraged between cruise lines and maritime wireless providers, such as last year’s joint venture of AT&T Mobility and SeaMobile Enterprises to provide wireless mobility communications to more than 115 cruise ships, which included 300 roaming agreements worldwide.

Under the deal, WMS will assume responsibility for services contracts, onboard wireless and shore-side infrastructure. This includes over 30 carriers that allow prepaid plans.

A clear call

The other option for people wanting to communicate home during a cruise has been to wait until the ship docks and find an internet cafe or payphone, but it is doubtful passengers will tolerate slower internet speeds, or a less than perfect phone connection. This reliance on ship technology, therefore, brings its own pressures. While consolidation between communications providers goes so far, sometimes the sheer geography involved is a major factor.

“Reliability is a key issue,” says Rand. “Some of our routes go as far north as the Arctic Circle, no more than two to five degrees above the horizon. If there is terrain in the way, the satellite signal is unreliable.” There are also occasional failures in some ports where local military communications interfere with commercial data communication.

The nature of sea travel also brings its own problems, Roberts says. “With a ship moving across the ocean, trying to hit a satellite several hundred miles up in the sky, the call then being relayed down to an earth station and completed along traditional land lines, does not always make for the clearest of calls,” he says.

“The biggest issue to be tackled is the speed and congestion at the satellite.”

“The biggest issue to be tackled is the speed and congestion at the satellite. Almost all of the communication tools that are available to people on land are available at sea. The main difference is we have this relatively small pipe we must push all the voice and data through. The satellite providers can sell us more bandwidth, but the minute they do the guests and crew use it up.”

Software such as Skype or voice over internet protocol (VoIP) services are either blocked, in the case of Silversea, which also bars peer to peer protocols, or the experience is such that the guest usually goes back to their mobile phones or email.

The next step, believes Roberts, is for cruise operators to optimise the bandwidth. That way they can better eliminate the sources of heavy congestion and improve the experience for both guests and crew.

Mark Barnard, Holland America’s manager of onboard revenue, agrees. “Within the industry, we are all aware of the current limitations that exist,” he says. “The future is going to be what the guest is going to want next, for example hand-held devices are getting more and more powerful. As long as we have the bandwidth and the capability to fit the data through it.”