Passenger expectations are incredibly high when it comes to communications on board cruise ships. Most assume the service will be comparable to what is available on land, so it can come as a shock to find lagging shipboard internet speeds.

While forewarning passengers of internet speed and costs is one way to address these raised expectations and avoid disappointment, many cruise lines are attempting to meet passengers’ heightened demands, as well as their own crews’ needs, with new service-enhancing technologies and techniques.

Making the most of it

Carnival Cruise Lines offers fleet-wide mobile phone accessibility and bow-to-stern wireless internet on all but three of its ships (those remaining ships will be completed by 2010); but they are still victim to the frustration and inconvenience of sluggish internet speeds.

“We minimise the non-guest internet usage during peak times by limiting the number of sessions available to crew and the amount of bandwidth available each session, so that the guest experience is not impacted.”

The use of satellite technology, in lieu of any other option, comes with a natural latency due to the sheer distance the signal must travel (from ship to satellite, to land and back again), which can be further slowed during peak bandwidth usage times on board. It can also be affected when the ship crosses rough seas or in areas where the satellite coverage may be weak.

In an effort to speed things up, Carnival has introduced technology that can boost internet speeds by making better use of bandwidth.

WAN (Wide Area Network) optimisation technology from IT company Riverbed has been installed across Carnival’s fleet and is used for crew, data and passenger bandwidth. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

“That, through compression and caching of some content, gives us a lot more efficient use of the bandwidth,” says Carnival’s manager of shipboard technology, Darryl Moseley.

Caching is a method of storing a web page that is visited regularly, so that the page does not have to be reloaded every time it is viewed, thereby reducing the bandwidth usage. Crystal Cruises similarly began introducing WAN optimisation just over a year ago, with favourable results.

“We contracted with the provider to get a 100% improvement over what we had previously, and we’ve easily accomplished that,” says Bill Roberts, director of systems and operations for Crystal Cruises. “The lower the amount of data that you have travelling in the pipe, the better the response is going to be.”

The need for speed

Bandwidth is a precious resource on board, and it is not just passengers who need and demand it; bandwidth is used for telephones, the internet café, corporate emails and internet access for the ship’s daily operations, which might involve visiting customs and immigration websites, public health websites and environmental websites.

Carnival takes measures to conserve bandwidth from the operations and crew’s perspective to help maximise the passenger experience. “The guest internet cafes always take the highest priority. We minimise the non-guest internet usage during peak times by limiting the number of sessions available to crew and the amount of bandwidth available each session, so that the guest experience is not impacted,” says Moseley.

“We can schedule our corporate data transfers so that they’re done in the middle of the night, again so that bandwidth is conserved for guest use,” he adds. Carnival can also identify (and put a stop to) those particular devices that are using up the most bandwidth through a network performance monitoring tool from software company NetQoS.

Cruise lines do have the option of simply increasing their bandwidth to cater for demand, but this is not always possible. Carnival lease satellite bandwidth from marine communications provider SeaMobile, but during peak periods when cruise lines most need extra bandwidth, such as in the Caribbean during winter, it is scarcely available. In the off-peak season, however, increasing bandwidth is usually possible.

Carnival has also made internet more reliable on board by installing back-up satellite dishes for those times when the primary dish is momentarily affected. “These [back-up dishes] typically don’t provide as much bandwidth, but they will keep the ship linked. Our satellite up-time is better than 98% on the Carnival fleet,” Moseley says.

Into the future

Cruise lines are certainly making the most of what bandwidth they have got, but how long will it be before the limitations of satellite technology are overcome? “I don’t think it’ll get there in the near future,” says Moseley. “For bandwidth to become easily available, competition for that bandwidth would have to decrease and the cost of satellite bandwidth would have to come down. And I don’t see any factors that are going to drive that any time soon.”

Moseley is hopeful that as the use of personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as iPhones and BlackBerrys increases, more mobile applications will emerge that make efficient use of bandwidth. He also expects that PDAs are where the future of onboard communication lies.

“From my point of view, I would like guests to come on board and use their mobile device as they do on land, it would be great for people to use their iPhones and BlackBerrys, not only to use the internet and make calls, but also to tap into all of their ship-board activities, in terms of having their shipboard calendar on their device with their shore tours and spa appointments and being able to access the daily events,” Moseley says.

Recognising that PDAs and other handheld mobile devices will be the way of the future for cruise passengers, CrystalCruises this year established an onboard service on its two-ship fleet of the Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, known as the Technology Concierge, which has been specifically designed to help guests learn how to better use their gadgets, from iPods to satellite navigation technologies.

Fleet management systems

While bandwidth and internet speeds affect some processes on board from the crew’s perspective, new fleet management systems debuting this year are seeing vast improvements in crew internet connectivity.

“For bandwidth to become easily available, competition for that bandwidth would have to decrease.”

In the next six months, Crystal Cruises will install the final phase of its new fleet management software by Adonis. The new software system allows Crystal’s vessels to access information about the ships in the fleet, where before this privilege was confined to each individual ship.

“We can plan two years in advance whether we need a head butler on Deck 12 of a particular ship, or a chef next March on another. It’s all-encompassing,” says Roberts.

Utilising a user-friendly database, the software keeps track of everything from staff medical records to training and medical certificates, appraisals and even travel information.

“That’s the biggest money saver for us in this,” says Roberts. “On this system, you have the [staff member’s] home airport and all their details for travel, so when it’s time to send them home we can book the most cost-efficient air provider from the port they’re going to within about 20 seconds. Previously it was back-and-forth emails between the travel companies.”

Carnival have introduced more advanced systems within the last year (which will also appear on its latest new build Carnival Dream) including Microsoft Systems Center Operations Manager 2007, which ties the computer rooms on the ships to a data centre in Miami, and enables it to manage the IT infrastructure on the ships; and ActiveRoles Server from Quest Software, which gives Carnival remote monitoring and management capabilities across the 22-ship fleet. But the introduction of new technology might stop here for Carnival, at least for the time being.

“The current economy isn’t boding well for IT spending,” says Moseley. “[For now], we’re going to continue to develop and leverage the tools we have.”