The Rise of the New Connected Cruise

by Matt Hannafin + Skift Team - Apr 2014

Skift Research Take

By satisfying guest expectations, maintaining sustainable ROIs, and predicting future trends and consumer demands, the new cruise lines are using technology and IT to meet guest expectations for 24/7 connectivity. Read interviews with CIOs of Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Carnival Corporation.

Report Overview

Water, water everywhere . . . and not a cell tower in sight. For cruise lines, the past 15 years have been a period of constant evolution around customer-facing communications and information technologies. Rapid advances in hardware and software have coupled with light speed consumer adoption of these technologies to produce a wholesale cultural paradigm shift: from a pay phone in every neighborhood to a smartphone in every pocket, in the blink of an historical eye. Where travelers once boarded cruise ships with the expectation of complete communications blackout from their daily lives, they now board with the expectation of total 24/7 connectivity — never mind that they’re bobbing on the ocean, hundreds of miles beyond range of the nearest networks.

Executive Summary

Water, water everywhere . . . and not a cell tower in sight. For cruise lines, the past 15 years have been a period of constant evolution around customer-facing communications and information technologies. Rapid advances in hardware and software have coupled with light speed consumer adoption of these technologies to produce a wholesale cultural paradigm shift: from a pay phone in every neighborhood to a smartphone in every pocket, in the blink of an historical eye. Where travelers once boarded cruise ships with the expectation of complete communications blackout from their daily lives, they now board with the expectation of total 24/7 connectivity — never mind that they’re bobbing on the ocean, hundreds of miles beyond range of the nearest networks.

Introduction

To meet customer expectations and drive brand penetration, cruise lines and their third-party service providers are innovating communications and information technologies within a set of constraints that have no parallel in the land-based resort business.

They’re pushing beyond the traditional satellite-based systems that have long limited connectivity and bandwidth at sea. They’re developing mobile applications that facilitate easy communication between guests on today’s plus-size ships. They’re deploying pattern and shape recognition technologies to measure the crowds at restaurants and other onboard venues, then beaming that information to guests via interactive signage around the ship. And they’re leveraging the phenomenal penetration of mobile devices among guests to bring new information, entertainment, and sales solutions online without the need for multi-million dollar refits of existing vessels.

For cruise lines, today’s customer-facing IT landscape is tightrope walk between satisfying guest expectations, maintaining sustainable return on investment, predicting future trends and consumer demands, and finding workarounds to one of the most challenging communications environments faced by any of the world’s industries. The payoff? Happy customers equipped to broadcast their happiness to the world.

Behind the Trend

Source: Royal Caribbean International

Source: Royal Caribbean International

Since the early 1960s, when passenger shipping lines began making the transition from providers of point-to-point transportation to purveyors of resort-style leisure travel, “cruising” has defined itself in relation to cultural and consumer expectations. Where once a cruise line could find success by delivering its own brand of dining, service, entertainment, and social activities while sailing between ports of call, that calculus began shifting as communications technologies and globalized business began flattening out regional differences and creating broadly held consumer expectations. Increasingly, consumers expect their cruise to be a package deal of familiarity and unfamiliarity: the majesty or charm of a foreign destination, but also a Starbucks latte and their favorite TV show when they get back on board.

For cruise lines, the trick has been to meet cultural trends and expectations while investing sustainably to minimize the costs and effects of change. In the late ’90s, every new ship launched with Cigar Aficionado – style cigar lounge — which, as tastes changed, transformed into, say, a cocktail-oriented piano lounge or a gourmet beer bar. As ships grew in overall size, onboard offerings got more elaborate: multiple restaurants, theaters, and retail shops. Branded entertainment. Theme park style rides. Increasingly elaborate spas, fitness centers, and sports venues. Projected longevity of concept and return on investment are key, because real estate comes at a premium aboard ship and construction to replace a failed concept must either be done in the presence of paying guests or deferred until the ship’s next dry dock.

Consumer-facing technologies have followed this same model. In 1999, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky debuted with the first internet cafe at sea, launching an industrywide trend while the concept of “internet cafe” still had currency in the wider culture. In the new millennium, many new ships were wired with in-cabin data ports to satisfy the growing trend of guests bringing their laptops aboard. The emergence of wireless (Wi-Fi) technology soon eclipsed the wired model, providing the cruise lines with a cost-effective method of delivering email and internet connectivity to their guests, both aboard new and existing vessels.

In 2003, satellite-based cellular service was introduced in Europe aboard Costa Cruises Costa Fortuna, and in fall 2004 Norwegian’s Norwegian Sun brought the technology to U.S. cruisers. Despite slow and spotty internet connectivity and high prices for both Wi-Fi and phone service (typically about 35 to 75 cents per minute for Wi-Fi and $2.50 to $6 per minute roaming charge for cellular), both technologies have remained mainstays of life aboard cruise ships for the past decade, providing a connective lifeline to guests. But as in the wider culture, the game is changing.

A Chicken in Every Pot, a Smartphone in Every Pocket

Let’s drop a dime and check in on the very recent past.

It’s the year 2000. Some 38% of Americans have jumped on the cell phone trend, but the world of telecommunications is still largely landlocked. There are still more than 2.2 million public payphones in the U.S., and internet cafes are a hip mainstay of the dot-com landscape.

But then, cell phones begin to evolve. BlackBerry achieves enormous popularity by merging mobile phone services and email. Meanwhile, telecommunications providers begin rolling out networks capable of providing internet access on mobile phones at near-broadband speed. In June 2007, Apple introduces the iPhone, revolutionizing the mobile phone and computing markets, and in late 2008 competitors using Google’s Android operating system begin releasing their own smartphones. Developers begin finding new applications for mobile software, effecting the swift transformation of the mobile device into a primary entertainment hub. Apple’s 2010 introduction of the iPad takes this trend even further, kick-starting a move away from desktop and notebook PCs toward tablet technologies.

In 2011, combined global sales of smartphones and tablets exceeds sales of desktop and notebook PCs for the first time As of October 2013, 75 percent of Twitter users and 48 percent of Facebook users access the services via mobile devices. And in January 2014, for the first time, more Americans access the internet via smartphone and tablet than via traditional PCs, marking an inflection point in mobile’s march to dominance.

Today, to a very real degree, mobile has become a sixth human sense, a new and increasingly integral way for people to connect with the world around them.

Connectivity in an Unconnected Environment

For the cruise industry, the cultural emergence of mobile produced immediate and still rippling effects. Within a few short years, guests who’d not long before been happy with sub-par online access at an onboard internet cafe began arriving with the expectation of constant connectivity, worked into the minute-by-minute fabric of their daily lives. They want to share their vacation experiences with people back home, whenever the mood strikes. They want to keep up with their stocks, or with projects at work. They want to check Facebook.

Cruise lines see a potential goldmine in giving their guests the ability to share photos and video from shipboard via social media — in the moment and mid-fun, their expressions and body language broadcasting to friends and acquaintances an implicit, priceless endorsement of the cruise line’s brand promise.

This presented a problem, but also an opportunity.

“For the past 20 years or so, where we’ve seen the demand for and the capabilities of technology, telecommunications, internet access, and cellular usage growing, it’s all been through satellite connectivity, which is very expensive and complicated,” says Vincent Cirel, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Norwegian Cruise Line. How expensive? “If you have high-speed internet access at your home,” says Cirel, “you have about as much internet bandwidth available for your own personal use as has to be shared across an entire ship, for all of its uses — and we pay about 250 times what you pay for that bandwidth at home.” In addition to cost and bandwidth limitations, connectivity via Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) antenna systems beaming information through geosynchronous satellites orbiting 23,000 miles up comes with other technical constraints as well.

Signal latency — the time it takes for a data request to be beamed to the satellite, sent
to a terrestrial server, and then answered back through the satellite — is typically 10 to 20 times longer than users experience on their home networks, adding to delays and jerky connections, particularly when attempting to stream audio or video. Signals can also by bad weather and by the ship’s geographical location: When operating close to shore in Alaska, for example ships may find their signals blocked by mountains.

Source: Cruise Line

Source: Cruise Line

Linking guests to the ship’s VSAT system poses its own problems. Due to the general architecture of a modern ship as mandated by international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirements, the steel bulkheads that separate the ship’s multiple fire zones act as formidable obstacles to Wi-Fi signals, requiring cruise lines to install 75% to 80% more Wi-Fi access points than would otherwise be necessary to provide bow-to-stern coverage.

This complexity of bandwidth, cost, and infrastructure goes a long way toward explaining the sluggish connectivity cruisers have endured over the past decade and a half. Meanwhile, the high rates they pay for that limited access are, say the cruise lines, less a matter of revenue generation than about constraining usage to keep demand at any given time within the system’s tolerances.

This longstanding dynamic — provide access for those who need it, but place limitations so that those who simply want it won’t clog the pipes — is no longer tenable. Faced with guests’ growing expectations of data connectivity, cruise lines and their telecom providers face a growing need to shake up the paradigm and deliver speedy access wherever and whenever the customer demands it.

But there’s another and potentially game changing component: Beyond simply meeting evolving expectations, cruise lines see a potential goldmine in giving their guests the ability to share photos and video from shipboard via social media — in the moment and mid-fun, their expressions and body language broadcasting to friends and acquaintances an implicit, priceless endorsement of the cruise line’s brand promise.

“The one time you want to be on social media, and sharing, is when you’re on vacation,” says Bill Martin, VP and CIO at Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., parent company of Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises, and European lines Pullmantur, CDF Croisières de France, and TUI Cruises. “Whether you’re tweeting, or Instagramming, or sharing on Facebook or Pinterest or any of the other social media platforms, you want to show the pictures of the new experiences you’re having, whether you’re on the Flowrider surfing simulator, or rock climbing, or ice skating, or any of the other things we do on board.

Source: Carnival Cruise Line's Instagram Account

Source: Carnival Cruise Line’s Instagram Account

But on cruise ships today, that’s limited because people don’t want to either pay the price or share it when they get back home, because that’s too late. In this real realtime, right-now world, seven days after it happened is ancient history. People won’t bother.”

Real-time. Right now. Cement the brain link: cruise = good times. Brochure pix of models frolicking on deck may suggest fun, but evidence that friends and family are actually having fun, right now, at this moment, while you’re at work, takes things to another level. It’s the ultimate come-hither marketing.

Building Speed, Building Brand

For cruise lines, guest expectations of connectivity and the marketing benefits of providing that connectivity are a powerful goad toward improved service. The question is: What’s the next frontier of better, faster, cheaper, and more reliable connectivity at sea? What new technologies can we leverage to give our guests the “always on” experience they’ve come to expect? How can we tailor our onboard experience to put more information, entertainment, and flexibility in the customer’s pocket?

Opinions and solutions strategies vary, but the clear trajectory of change is already shaking up the industry Longtime leader MTN Satellite Communications, which installed the cruise industry’s first VSAT antenna in 1991 (aboard NCL’s Seaward), is taking a hybrid approach, rolling out a system that pairs next-generation satellite technologies, conventional Ku-band satellites, and land-based wifi stations to offer flexibility and targeted capacity where and when it’s needed most. In partnership with next-generation communications service provider O3b Networks, Royal Caribbean is testing a system that utilizes a ring of low-orbiting satellites to bring a more powerful, punchier signal to its ships, while simultaneously introducing a new rate structure that will radically lower the cost of guest connectivity.

Some cruise lines are using connectivity as a perk. When new luxury line Viking Ocean Cruises launches in mid-2015, its guests will be able to access free Wi-Fi internet 24 hours a day, a perk already enjoyed by guests on Viking River Cruises and many other river cruise lines. Starting with its 2014/2015 winter season, Regent Seven Seas Cruises will give guests in Concierge-level suites and higher between 200 and 500 minutes of free wifi, based on the length of the cruise. Unlimited access is available to all guests at a rate of $29.99 per day, and is free for guests who have previously sailed at least 21 nights with the line. Beginning in fall, all past guests of Crystal Cruises will receive 60 minutes of free internet access every day of their cruise.

Intra-ship communication is also trending. Norwegian, Costa, Royal Caribbean, and Disney Cruise Line all offer mobile software or hardware solutions that allow guests to phone and text other guests onboard at a nominal rate or free — a boon for family groups or friends traveling together on today’s plus-size ships. Cruise lines are also using onboard servers and networks to beam information and entertainment to their guests’ mobile devices, from streamed movies and TV shows to mobile gambling, onboard events listings, and special offers. Tablet computers are showing up as standard features in some cabins, and as trendy (and easier to read) menus in restaurants and wine bars.

With upwards of 85% of today’s cruisers arriving on board with a smartphone or tablet — not to mention a cultural expectation of Facebook, YouTube, and Skype — the trend toward shipboard connectivity has nowhere to go but up, pushing the technological envelope out to keep pace. Instead of “If you build it, they will come,” the cruise lines are faced with the logic of “They are coming, so we must build it.”

MTN Nexus:The Upstairs/Downstairs Solution

Source: MTN

Source: MTN

Today’s consumers demand constant connectivity. The legacy satellite systems through which the cruise industry has long delivered internet to its guests cannot satisfy that demand.
What’s the solution?

In seeking to bridge this disconnect, industry pioneer MTN Satellite Communications decided on a multi-platform solution that it calls MTN Nexus. Announced in late 2012, the MTN Nexus network leverages both next-generation satellite technologies and optimized terrestrial wifi to allow cruise lines to better meet the demands of always connected guests and crew.

The core concept of the network is a seamless link between new High Throughput Multi-Spot Beam (HTMS) satellite technology delivered through the Intelsat Epic satellite constellation, conventional Ku-band satellite systems, and a network of terrestrial wifi stations in high-demand ports of call.

In a nutshell, the system works like this:

MTN’s client ships will connect through the new Intelsat Epic satellite constellation, the first link of which will launch into orbit in 2015. According to Intelsat, the new system will offer some three to five times more capacity and ten times greater throughput than traditional Intelsat satellites. Initially focused on the Caribbean (which still reigns as the top cruise destination worldwide, representing over 37% of all deployments[1]), service for cruise ships has the potential to expand once additional Epic satellites are delivered to orbit in 2016 and beyond. When outside the Epic coverage area, ships will switch seamlessly the MTN HTMS beams and Ku-band beams, ensuring conventional global coverage.

A vital link in the new network is MTN’s system of terrestrial wifi stations, located in high-volume cruise ports and employing a Broadband Antenna Tracking and Stabilization (BATS) system to beam high-capacity wifi directly to ships as they near the port — as far out as 12 to 20 miles, depending on geography and other obstructions. As the wifi connection is established, the MTN system reallocates the ship’s unneeded satellite capacity to the line’s other ships at sea, maximizing capacity and reducing cost for the client. The terrestrial wifi connection not only speeds internet access for guests but allows the cruise line to perform data-heavy tasks far more quickly and efficiently, freeing up bandwidth while at sea and, through caching of content in onboard servers, potentially facilitating the provision of services such as streaming video content through guests’ smartphones and tablets. (See “Cruise Global, Link Local: Leveraging the Shipboard Cloud.”)

According to Vincent Cirel, CIO of Norwegian Cruise Line, NCL’s vessels are currently utilizing these terrestrial wifi links in Miami, New York, and Bermuda, and adding the functionality in several Alaska ports.

For Cirel, the terrestrial wifi links are all about optimizing the efficient use of a limited resource. “When the ship is in port, you have much more of a terrestrial-type experience,” he says. “If you’re a businessman on board with your family and you’ve got a 60 megabyte Word document you’ve got to download, doing that over the ship’s network while at sea will work, but it’ll take a while because you’ve got maybe 2 megabits total for the ship. But when the ship pulls into port the following morning, you’ve got a 45 megabit connection, and you’re talking about a massively different experience.”

Royal Caribbean and O3b Maritime:More MEO, Less GEO

Source: Royal Caribbean International

Source: Royal Caribbean International

While MTN and Norwegian Cruise Line look to terrestrial Wi-Fi stations to mitigate some of the connectivity problems inherent in at-sea operations, a partnership between Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., telecom provider Harris CapRock Communications, and O3b Networks is aiming higher — literally.

Announced in June 2012, the idea behind O3b Maritime is simple but revolutionary: Deliver better, faster, and cheaper connectivity by utilizing a fleet of medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites flying 5,000 miles up, rather than the traditional geostationary satellites orbiting at 23,000 miles. The relative proximity cuts signal latency to near fiber-optic speed and allows the system to offer bandwidth and service on par with land-based networks.

Key to the system’s robustness is the fact that it piggybacks on a much larger-scale initiative, rather than being targeted specifically to the cruise industry. Founded by entrepreneur Greg Wyler in 2007, O3b’s story is in its name: Other 3 billion — the number of people in the world that currently lack broadband internet access due to geography, political instability, and economics. Backed by investors such as Google, HSBC, satellite operator SES, and others, the company launched it’s first four satellites on June 25, 2013, with a further four schedule to launch in late June 2014. When complete, the system will band the Earth just above the equator, bringing quality, affordable broadband to 177 countries across Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the South Pacific – Not to mention the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, which is where Royal Caribbean comes in.

Currently in place aboard the line’s 225,282-ton, 5,400-guest Oasis of the Seas (the world’s largest cruise vessel, along with sister ship Allure of the Seas), a test project has been offering O3b satellite service to a select group of guests while 03b, Royal Caribbean, and systems integrator Harris CapRock fine-tune the system for it’s public roll-out in August.

“Some kinks need to be worked out, because it’s a very new technology,” says Royal Caribbean CIO Bill Martin. “But even in the test phase, with only four satellites in orbit, we’re seeing over 500 megabits in capacity coming down to the vessel, and a latency of about 120 milliseconds.” That compares to between one and eight megabits of capacity and a latency that can be as much as 800 milliseconds on ships with legacy satellite internet. “When you’re at 800 milliseconds, that’s almost a full second of wait time for every package going across the internet,” Martin notes. “Fiber speeds are more in the neighborhood of 100. So we’re getting incredible speed — and that’s even with steep look angles to pick up the satellite because there are only four in orbit right now. When there are eight in orbit and we go into full commercial service sometime around August, those numbers should be even better.”

A key issue being dealt with in project testing involves signal acquisition. Due to the O3b
satellites’ low altitude, their orbital period doesn’t match the sidereal rotation period of
the Earth, as do those of satellites in higher geostationary orbit (GEO). While GEO satellites stay permanently locked in the same spot of sky, satellites in low and middle Earth orbit are always moving across the horizon, requiring O3b’s antennas to switch and reacquire the transmission signal as one satellite moves out of range and another enters.

“O3B was designing for land-based installation, using ground antenna to track and acquire the satellites as they pass overhead,” says Bill Martin. “At sea, that becomes more complicated because not only do you track and acquire based on where the satellite is, you also have to track and acquire based on the ship’s movement, both in the water and as it moves from port to port. It’s a little more sophisticated algorithm — not terribly difficult, but it needs to be worked through.”

When properly calibrated, the steerable antennas aboard Royal Caribbean’s ships will be able to maintain a constant, super high-speed connection for guests and staff across most of the company’s sailing regions — but not all. By design, O3b’s satellite deployment concentrates on a coverage zone between +/- 45 degrees of latitude from the equator, in order to deliver services efficiently to it’s target emerging-market countries. Little but Antarctica and the tips of South America and New Zealand fall below the 45th parallel south, but all of northern Europe and Alaska fall above the 45th parallel north, as do most of Canada and Russia and the northernmost of the U.S. states. The O3b / Royal Caribbean initiative is therefore currently focused on the Caribbean and Asia, where Quantum of the Seas will be home-ported beginning in May 2015. The Mediterranean also falls comfortably within the O3b system’s range.

According to Bill Martin, Royal Caribbean sees the O3b initiative as the key element in a new, multilayered approach to onboard internet connectivity. “This is a very promising new technology that we believe can answer the call of consumer demand for 24/7 connectivity,” he says. However, to mitigate outages when the ships are sailing outside O3b’s coverage zone, Harris CapRock will continue to maintain traditional VSAT equipment aboard each ship, to be used as needed.

Harris CapRock, a global satellite and terrestrial communications company, has in recent years become the dominant telecommunications services provider to the North American cruise industry, having won the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. contract in 2012 and the Carnival Corporation contract in 2013. Together, those two companies control over 140 ships spread across 16 different cruise line brands.

Royal Caribbean’s move to Harris was also driven by the need for greater speed, with installation of Harris’s SpaceTrack stabilized antenna systems projected to deliver five times the bandwidth previously available. “After we moved to the Harris CapRock solution,” says Martin, “our typical vessel now has six or eight times the capacity they had previously, and Oasis and Allure each have about 22 megabits of capacity. If you highly optimize those connections, you can get a lot of throughput” In addition, the company has shifted to a new coverage model that allocates total available bandwidth by region rather than individual ship, and allows the dynamic shifting of capacity between vessels in the region as needed.

As it moves toward its overall goal of providing guests with better, faster connectivity, Royal Caribbean is also changing the software it uses to connect guests to the internet, moving to a software as a service (SaaS) model in which the software lives on shoreside servers connected to the vessels through their satellite link. As this software is rolled out across the fleet, the company is also changing its pricing structure for internet services, moving away from a per-minute metered system and toward package rates of $49–$59 per day or $179 per week for unlimited connection. While that may seem pricey, think of it this way: At that weekly rate, guests will be paying .017 cents per minute for faster internet access, instead of 75 cents per minute for molasses. For today’s connected cruiser, that’s news worth writing home about.

Disney’s Pay-per-Megabyte Solution

Until recently, all shipboard internet access was metered on a per-minute basis. Some lines are now experimenting with unlimited connectivity, but Disney is taking a different tack by switching from a per-minute to a per-megabyte solution. Charges start at $0.25 per MB, with lower rates available by package purchase: $19 for 100 MB, $39 for 300 MB, and $89 for 1,000 MB. The system provides savings for guests with low bandwidth needs — for instance, guests who only send the occasional email. Another advantage? Since there’s no per-minute charge, you can spend as long as you want composing that email, then just pay the cost of sending it. Think of it as a digital postage stamp.

Cruise Global, Link Local:Leveraging the Shipboard Cloud

An essential step in the mobile strategies being pursued by cruise lines and their technology providers involves optimizing shipboard cloud/intranet networks and mobile apps to quickly provide the information and services guests want and need, without ever having to access the satellite link.

“One thing we’re analyzing deeply is what information can we save in our intranet and what information should stay on the internet,” says Ramon Millan, senior vice president and global CIO of Carnival Corporation, parent company of Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Costa Cruises, Cunard, Seabourn, P&O Cruises, P&O Cruises Australia, and Spanish line Iberocruceros. “The bottleneck in the end is in the satellite bandwidth, when you’re in the middle of the ocean and you try to connect to a server that’s based in New York or Miami. We are analyzing and optimizing the route for each component of information. Sometimes you don’t have to go all the way to the local server. Sometimes you can use our internal server to provide information.”

It’s a logical move. Cruise ships are societies in microcosm, so why not bring the internet on board in microcosm too?

Carnival’s strategy focuses on its intranet, to which guests can connect for free using their smartphones, tablets, or notebook computers. “Connecting to our wifi network will give you access to some local applications, in which you can see deck plans, book a table for dinner, book spa services, and take a look at all the different activities scheduled for the day or for tomorrow, and see what are the main attractions in the ports you’ll visit,” says Millan. “It creates the appearance that you’re running an app, but basically you’re running the intranet, which allows us to update information faster and gives us information on what our guests are looking for, so we can adjust and learn and continue increasing the quality of the activities we offer, making them more aligned to guest expectations.”

As with many similar systems, the Carnival brands’ intranet portal currently gives guests access to deck plans and daily schedules, allows them to book various onboard services and experiences (dinner or spa reservations, etc.), and gives them information on upcoming ports of call and excursions. Other functionality is targeted to specific brands based on the expectations and needs of their typical guests, while functionality on some of the company’s brands serves as a test case for possible cross-brand rollout. Princess for instance, is currently testing a system for mobile streaming of movies and TV shows cached on the ships’ servers. Such information caching and onboard cloud networking are integral elements of the integrated solutions being offered to the cruise lines by Harris CapRock and MTN.

For many cruise lines, downloadable mobile applications play a large and expanding role in delivering information, entertainment, and other services to guests. Norwegian’s iConcierge app, which debuted in March 2012, gives guests the ability to view daily schedules, check their onboard account, make dining and shore excursion reservations, and see information on ports, entertainment, spa services, onboard shopping, and onboard services, as well as phone or text other guests (see “Talk Amongst Yourselves: Satellite and Onboard Cellular”). MSC Cruises new “Traveler Web App” has similar functionality. Introduced aboard the line’s MSC Divina on her winter 2013–2014 Caribbean itineraries, it will soon be rolled out to most ships in the MSC fleet.

Some cruise lines, which invested early in mobile hardware solutions to satisfy guest demand, are looking to switch that functionality to apps that can live on guests’ own devices. Royal Caribbean, for example, installed iPads in suites on its older Vision-class ships over the past several years, through which guests could order room service, make reservations, watch on-demand movies, and receive special offers for onboard spas and restaurants.

Source: Royal Caribbean

Source: Royal Caribbean

“We had some success with company-owned mobile hardware early on,” says Royal Caribbean CIO Bill Martin. “But today, if you walk on board the ship and you’ve got a Galaxy S5 or your iPhone or iPad, you want to use your own device. You don’t want to use something that the company’s providing. While that worked for a while, the future is being able to leverage the onboard infrastructure to connect guests’ devices so you can deliver information to them through that and offer services through that.”

On the flip side of playing catch-up with the BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) trend, Royal Caribbean’s new Quantum of the Seas, which is set to debut in November 2014, will be the first new ship designed and delivered to the line with the expectation of radically increased connectivity through its partnership with O3b Networks. “There are unique and fun things you can do when you have that type of connectivity that you could not have done on a ship that wasn’t built with that in mind,” says Bill Martin. “And that’s probably as much as I can say about it right now!”

Talk Amongst Yourselves:Satellite and Onboard Cellular

Satellite cellular connectivity from cruise ships is now a decade-old story, but several
cruise lines and vendors are in the process of tweaking the model, leveraging their onboard wifi to offer on-vessel messaging and debuting Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) solutions to drastically lower the price of ship-to-shore calls.

Norwegian’s iConcierge

Source: Norwegian Cruise Line

Source: Norwegian Cruise Line

Voice and text messaging via NCL’s iConcierge app was introduced aboard Norwegian Epic in 2012 and is currently in the process of being rolled out across the line’s fleet.

“What we’ve implemented as part of iConcierge is the ability for guests to use our onboard wifi network to make calls on board the vessel without incurring any cellular charges,” says NCL CIO Vincent Cirel. “It’s been hugely well-received.”

Once guests register, they can make phone calls or send text messages to other app users onboard, and call staterooms and a variety of shipboard guest services. The service is unlimited, and currently costs $7.95 for the duration of the cruise. Recently, the app’s functionality has been extended to offer guests ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship calling, at rates substantially below cellular providers’ roaming charges. “And as you might imagine,” says Cirel, “that totally changed the tone and timbre of the conversations we were able to have with the carriers prior to being able to offer a viable alternative for people who didn’t want to pay up to $5/minute to make a cell phone call.”

To reach guests, callers on land dial a toll-free number, select the ship the guest is sailing aboard, then dial their stateroom number or the dedicated number provided with their app.

Costa’s My Costa Mobile

In February 2014, Carnival Corp. subsidiary Costa Cruises began offering it’s My Costa Mobile” app for smartphones and tablets, allowing guests to call and text with other users on board, unlimited and at no cost. Guests can also use the app to contact guests’ staterooms and a number of guest services, including restaurants, the shore excursion office, and the spa. According to Carnival Corp. SVP and global CIO Ramon Millan, the service is first being deployed across the Costa Cruises fleet, with the possibility of cross-pollination to Carnival Corp.’s other brands.

Royal Caribbean’s Royal Connect

The story of Royal Caribbean’s Royal Connect phones illustrates the downside of jumping onto new technologies early. Debuted in early 2010, the Royal Connect system predates the Norwegian and Costa apps’ onboard voice/text functionality and ability to dial shipboard extensions, and a handy “Guest Finder” feature allows you to pinpoint the location of friends’ and family’s linked phones on on-screen deck plan, leveraging the wifi network’s triangulation and location data. But, there’s a catch: Rather than being an app uploadable to guests own smartphones, it’s a hardware solution using company-owned devices that guests rent for $30 per device, per cruise.

It’s an outdated solution, and Royal Caribbean knows it.

“In the feedback we get from guests, they’re wondering why they have to use our device instead of theirs,” says Royal Caribbean CIO Bill Martin. “They don’t want to carry two devices around. That’s one of the reasons we’re pursuing a downloadable app for consumers to use on their own devices.”

Disney’s Wave Phones

Disney's Wave Phones / Source: Skift

Disney’s Wave Phones / Source: Skift

Introduced shortly after Royal Caribbean’s Royal Connect phones, Disney’s Wave Phones are a hardware-based communications solution that allows guests to call or text any other Wave Phone onboard or on Disney’s private Bahamian resort, Castaway Cay, or call any stateroom or other shipboard line. Use of two Wave Phones per stateroom is included in cruise rates, and additional phones can be rented for $3.50 per day.

Interactive Onboard Media

As in society at large, the cruise industry is moving hard and fast toward mobile software solutions that put easily updatable functionality on people’s own devices. But that doesn’t mean hardware has completely taken a backseat.

Aboard Royal Caribbean’s ships, large digital “Wayfinder” touchscreens located at all elevator landings give guests directions to staterooms and venues on board, quick access to onboard activity listings, and answers to common questions, as well as linking to pattern and shape recognition software in the ship’s restaurants to tell guests in real time how crowded each restaurant is.

“Guests love it because it’s just smart. It’s really easy to use,” says Royal Caribbean CIO Bill Martin. “Kids use it, older grandparents use it. By sharing what restaurants have availability, guests will self-select away from restaurants that are particularly busy at a point in time, and as a result, we rarely if ever see lines outside restaurants, because people already know which restaurants are filling up.”

Wayfinder screens were first introduced on the line’s largest ships, Oasis and Allure of the Seas, and then rolled out to other ships in the fleet.

Elsewhere, Royal Caribbean has found creative uses for tablet computers. In its Vintages Wine Bars, iPad menus let guests communicate with their waiter and also go in-depth on the different wines available, showing videos of the vineyards and background on how the wine is made. Aboard sister-line Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice-class vessels, guests can check out iPads pre-loaded with self-directed art tours of the ships’ extensive contemporary art collections. Arranged by deck, the tours provide background on the artist and the individual work.

Insights on the New Connected Cruise

Source: Norwegian Cruise Line

Source: Norwegian Cruise Line

When popular will and potential marketing windfalls collide, miracles can happen. In just a few short years, the cruise industry has moved from being the last bastion of dial-up-speed internet to being part of a technological revolution bringing civilization-quality connectivity to the deep blue sea. The tides of history rose, cultural expectations underwent a sea change, and the industry innovated to reap the potential benefit. Some lessons from the frontlines:

  • Move to the next level — For a decade, the state of connectivity at sea was essentially static, but when drastically improved service became normalized across the wider society, it was time for next generation solutions such as Royal Caribbean’s partnership with O3b Networks — a solution that has the potential to completely transform the state of connectivity at sea.
  • Leverage all-of-the-above solutions — Simply trying to eke more bandwidth out of traditional high-altitude satellites won’t solve the cruise industry’s connectivity problem. In seeking a solution, MTN Satellite Communications opted to create seamless synergies between emerging and legacy technologies, bolting new functionality onto proven satellite and terrestrial systems.
  • Move beyond your old successes — First-movers sometimes get stuck holding the bag. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., long the cruise industry’s innovator-in chief, was a heavy early adopter of tablet and smartphone technologies, but is now having to move beyond that model and develop apps to accommodate the BYOD ethos. Market shifts demand new innovation, even from innovators.
  • Give yourself leverage — Service providers that have a monopoly don’t have much incentive to negotiate. When Norwegian Cruise Line added ship-to-shore VOiP functionality to its iConcierge app, it suddenly had a better hand in negotiating with cellular providers. If you build it, they will talk.
  • Enable your guests, so they can enable you — Social media and the cruise industry are a match made in heaven. By enabling guests to quickly and easily connect to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social platforms, the cruise industry is in effect buying facetime with millions of potential clients. Despite the extra bandwidth required, a picture is still worth a thousand words.