Cruise ships are getting a big upgrade

upgrade

Cruise ships have long lagged behind the rest of the travel industry when it comes to technology. Wi-Fi connections have traditionally been painfully slow, and the only noteworthy technology investment cruise lines made usually involved systems designed to make it easier to pay for optional items like spa treatments, dinners and trips to the onboard casino.

Not anymore.

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Royal Caribbean Cruises just introduced a fleet of what it calls “smartships” that offer high-tech touches like cocktail-mixing robots, RFID powered wristbands, and mobile apps. And Carnival announced that it’s creating the cruise industry’s largest Wi-Fi network, which will offer the broadest possible high-speed global coverage across dozens of ships. Luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises also said on its official blog that it will offer free unlimited Wi-Fi access for every passenger starting in late 2016.

These upgrades promise to change the sailing experience, opening cruise vacations to passengers like always-connected Millennials and conference attendees, who would have never considered a cruise before. But as always, there’s a catch: Someone has to pay for the technology, and that someone is probably you.

Faster Wi-Fi

The centerpiece of these technology upgrades is faster Wi-Fi. O3b Networks, a company that provides ship-to-shore communication systems, started working with Royal Caribbean back in 2011 to upgrade its internet connections. It developed a new type of high-throughput satellite which quadrupled connection speeds, according to Steve Collar, O3b’s CEO.

“It allows passengers to play interactive Microsoft Xbox online games with players around the world, stream Netflix HD videos to their devices, share their vacation experience via social media and even chat online,” he adds. “This is an unprecedented experience on a cruise ship.”

Michael Bayley, Royal Caribbean’s CEO, said passengers want a connected ship. “Access to reliable and fast internet access is now a requirement by our guests,” he says. “We have worked very hard to find ways to simplify how we provide our unique high speed internet service.”

Royal Caribbean’s Wi-Fi packages, called Voom, will cost $15 per day per device with a second device half off, and offer download speed that was available for the entire fleet not long ago, according to the company.

Demand for wireless connection is high, agrees Reza Rasoulian, a vice president for connectivity for Carnival. “Historically for the cruise and maritime industry, connectivity while sailing in the middle of the ocean has been a challenge,” he admits. But he says Carnival has pulled it off. Its new wireless network is deployed on 34 of its 100 ships, and represents a huge investment in satellites, networks and optimization technologies.

Carnival’s system, called [email protected], allows guests to share photos and updates, and even call home from a computer. “Previously, a simple connection was a challenge,” says Rasoulian.

It’s difficult to quantify the upgrades with any precision. Neither Royal Caribbean nor Carnival would disclose their exact connection speeds pre- or post-upgrade. A Carnival spokeswoman would only say that speeds “are similar” to those found in a public Wi-Fi setting. (Those can range from 1 to more than 4 Mbps.) Royal Caribbean claims its Wi-Fi service “exceeds” 500 Mbps per ship. The cruise lines declined to discuss the costs of the new, better-connected ships.

Just the beginning of a tech renaissance

“Customer experience across all segments of the travel industry is being transformed by technology,” says Umar Riaz, managing director of North American for Accenture Travel. Customers want better Wi-Fi, seamless booking and check-in, social media integration, and mobile device enablement, so the cruise industry is meeting that demand.

Better Wi-Fi is just the beginning, says Chris Ruff, the CEO of UIEvolution, which provides software solutions to Enterprise companies in the cruise, automotive, and hotel industries. The entire industry is one on the cusp of a digital revolution.

“Technology like faster Wi-Fi, improved in-cabin entertainment, and other tools like digital signage and wayfinding not only improves the experience for passengers, but provides opportunities for the brand to collect valuable guest intelligence that can be used to further enhance and personalize passengers’ experiences,” he says.

Steve Griswold, an Atlanta-based travel agent who just cruised on the retrofitted Oasis of the Seas, is a convert to “smart” ships.

“We used to lock our cell phones in the safe and then find an internet cafe at the cruise ports to catch up every few days on work emails,” he says. “Now all that has changed. Wi-Fi is everywhere.It’s a blessing, but also no longer are you device-less for a week, which I have to admit was kind of nice.”

Griswold says he paid $15 per device per day for unlimited Internet access, and, he adds, “it just plain works.”

How much will all of this cost?

Certainly, cruise lines hope to cover the expense of the new technology with higher usage rates. Carnival, which is shifting from a pay-by-minute model to an “unlimited” model for wireless connections, claims the new system will cost passengers less. On Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas unlimited internet will be included in the price of the cruise, starting next May — something Bayley, Royal Caribbean’s CEO, calls “previously unthinkable.”

“We’ve seen satisfaction rates jump by 50 percent on guest surveys, which was a major catalyst for us to continue to expand this solution across our brands,” notes Carnival’s Rasoulian.

It also seems likely that some cruise lines will raise their prices or cruise fares — or both — in order to cover the substantial expense of these shipboard upgrades. And while the ships of the past may have been “dumb,” at least in terms of technology, they were also often cheaper.

Attracting business customers

All of the upgrades in tech could mean that cruising will appeal to a whole new set of passengers, beyond the traditional cruise-interest demographic, sometimes derisively (but not entirely inaccurately) referred to as the newlywed, overfed and nearly dead.

“We anticipate more conference, training and incentive meeting sales opportunities across the board,” says Bernadette Stark, the vice president of conference, events, and training for Vacation.com. “In many cases, holding these events onboard a cruise ship can help minimize costs over a land-based event.”

10 thoughts on “Cruise ships are getting a big upgrade

  1. Just a small technical “upgrade.” Wi-Fi is really just wireless ethernet, a type of local area network. Providing a fast Wi-Fi connection means your laptop/smartphone, etc. will have a faster connection to the local network (in this case, the ship’s network).

    Internet access, or an Internet connection between the ship and the rest of the Internet is something else, and that is also where the real log-jam occurs. 100s or 1,000s of devices sharing a single connection to the outer world.

    It sounds like O3b, and probably others, have found ways to speed up the connection between the ship and the rest of the world (via satellite when at sea). Other companies and standards groups have been working to improve the speed of the local Wi-Fi connection.

    So, a caveat. When the cruise line says “Free Wi-Fi” they may mean just that, access to the ship’s local network for services served from on-board: reading menus, making reservations, reserving deck-chairs, watch on-board cameras, streaming video, and maybe email, etc. But, that does not automatically equate to free Internet access. That might require an additional fee. As usual, be smart and ask what is included in “Free.”

  2. Our cruise on Holland America’s Amsterdam this Fall had very slow, unreliable, and expensive internet. This would have been appreciated by a lot of folks I’m sure. All of the others at our dinner table were complaining bitterly.

    In their defense, HAL has added some on-board tech sessions with a person who was actually interesting and informative. They had a room with about a dozen computer stations for the training, but even their tech guy could not maintain access to the internet.

    MAYBE, they will be pushed along by Carnival. I am afraid they think of themselves as the Wood-burning Generations Cruise Line, but a lot of us old folks are pretty Tech Savvy.

  3. This could be HUGE for the cruise industry. But only if they market it correctly. The airlines have touted their internet for several years and it rarely works, making management look like idiots. Cruise lines could make major inroads into business bookings, as well as lots of us who are used to being online several hours a day and want to keep up while cruising, even if it’s just an hour before dinner. But it has to work, they can’t lie about it.

  4. Internet access while on a cruise has always been very disappointing. I’m fortunate in that I don’t need to stay connected to work while on holiday. It would be nice to be able to stay in touch with family without burning most of your minutes just uploading and downloading. On a recent cruise with Princess it was nice being able to easily keep track of on board daily activities and making reservations. But in general wifi on any cruise line is painfully slow. I realize that many of the ships functions require a constant and fast internet connection so we passengers are left with the table scraps.

    So why is the wifi offered at most US airports also painfully slow. It’s not like any airport is located in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and dependent on a satellite connection. Their aren’t that many airports I’ve used that offer reasonably usable wifi. I was on a trip several months ago to Frankfurt, Budapest and Prague. I was extremely happy with the wifi those airports offer. Sorry I went off on this tangent!

    Any improvement the cruise lines make with their public wifi will be appreciated.

    1. The speed of an individual connection is largely dependent on two factors: the speed of the location’s Internet connection(s) and the number of people using that connection. Internet access is still fairly expensive for commercial locations, so they may limit the budget for Internet service. This is especially true if the service is offered for free, and there is no income gain to offset the expense (as is the case in an airport).

      Many locations with free access also offer a paid access with, supposedly, better speeds. Just remember the golden rule of consumerism: In life you tend to get what you pay for. Or the corollary, nothing is really ever free.

      1. Hey Richard,
        I appreciate your response and I do realize there’s no free lunch. But having first hand experience using free wifi offered in airports in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Norway and the Czech Republic finding without exception very fast wifi I just wonder why US airports can’t do better. European airports aren’t making any money offering free wifi to their passengers. If they can provide faster wifi then our airports should be able to as well

        1. Most airports are publicly run (though that is changing) and paid for by tax payers. In the US we have a rather strong opposition to taxes and a large portion of the populace subscribes to an ethic in which each person should only pay for what they need. Most of the rest of the world has a more socialized view and is more willing to spend on the public good.

          Sadly, in the US, I believe we are getting exactly what we are willing to pay for.

          BTW, even with the private airport operators, the expected level of services that should be available to the general public is still based on a broader sense of public good.

  5. Just got off a Royal Caribbean ship didn’t use WIFI because on the Brilliance of the Seas we $30.00 per day for 2 units. At 15 per day I might have considered using it. Don’t know if Brilliance has been updated to O3b.

  6. First of all, the only ships Royal Caribbean has with the upgraded WiFi are the Anthem and Quantum. The Majesty will be next in the Spring (ship has to be in dry-dock for all the work that needs to be done).
    I’m continually amazed how people believe free WiFi is a God-given right. If it’s free, accept it and be thankful. When you have to pay for it, and it doesn’t meet your expectations, then you can complain.
    Lastly, if you’re on a cruise, you’re on vacation. You probably shouldn’t be checking your email/twitter/facebook 20+ times a day.
    I was very disappointed this past Spring going to Disney World, and seeing parents and kids alike all glued to their phones, and missing out on the beauty of the parks.

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