Internet Access on Ships

| January 30, 2008
Internet access on ships is still pretty slow and expensive. Why is this so, and when will things get better?

This article is for people familiar with Internet technology. For the regular person's guide to using shipboard Internet, go here: Tips for Internet Use on Your Cruise

A lot of demographic pundits would call me a road warrior. I often do business in places other than my office, and I must spend a significant amount of my "vacation" time working. Like many road warriors, I put in a full day of work every weekday and often work weekends.

Because I work in the cruise industry, any cruise I take is as much work as pleasure. And because I must work on ships, the better the onboard Internet connection, the more pleasurable my cruise becomes.

One of the first things I ask about any ship is what kind of Internet access it has. For me, it must have wireless service, because I need to do a lot more than check email -- I use applications like Secure Shell and HTML editors all the time. I upload video to my web site from ships, and I write newsletters that require me to research Web sites.

The State of Cruise Ship Internet Access Today's cruise ship Internet access is slow and expensive. I always buy the biggest package the ship has available almost as soon as I board. I have been on ships where the Internet was so bad I would literally wait 30 minutes just for my email to download. That is unacceptable, but an average ship's Internet connection still requires about 10 minutes to retrieve just one day's email. (I get a LOT of email).

To find out why cruise ship Internet access is so dismal, I spoke to the IT manager for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Scott McCarthy. Like most lines, Regent uses the company MTN Technologies for Internet access at sea.

MTN leases, sells, installs and manages the equipment ships need to communicate with the outside world -- whether by phone or Internet. In fact, phone and Internet are nearly the same now that telephone technology has given itself over to the digital domain. All Internet and phone traffic can simply be referred to as telecommunications data, or just "data."

Almost all cruise ship data uses the C-band -- the spectrum of microwave frequencies that communicates with high-orbit telecommunications satellites -- usually used for raw television feeds. Antennas usually need to be 8 to 12 feet.

A Short Lesson in Telecom Say you took a picture, cut it up like a jigsaw puzzle, numbered each piece, and mailed it to a friend. That is how telecom data works. Computers can take anything -- pictures, email, even your voice -- and cut it up into tiny jigsaw puzzle pieces. They are called "packets," made up of bits and numbered with a binary (two character) system.

Think of Morse code, which only used dots and dashes -- just two characters, but it could create enough combinations to represent the entire alphabet. It was enough to invent the telegraph. That is what packets are -- a string of bits using a binary code to represent more complicated sets of data.

Internet Connectivity Speed How many bits can you transmit and receive per second? In your house, if you use a dial-up modem, you receive about 50,000 bits per second. Pretty slow, which is why most of us have DSL or cable modems these days. Those connections can send you several million bits per second. These days, that is what is required for what most of us consider a decent Internet connection.

On a ship, every computer is connected to a single point where all the data is converted to bits that are beamed up to the satellites. This is the service MTN offers to cruise ships.

This includes the computers in the ship's cyber-cafe. It also includes all the antennas the ship installed to offer wireless connectivity, so you can use your laptop in various areas of the ship.

In addition, most ships these days send a tremendous amount of data to the mainland from the crew, mostly for company operations like credit card charges or double-checking reservations or passenger status.

All data on the ship goes to a single device called an "uplink," which is connected to the satellite dish on top of the ship and communicates with the satellites. There are currently four of these high-orbit satellites in space, and every ship has to locate one and lock into them with an uninterrupted signal to send and receive packets. This is obviously tricky.

It is also expensive. The average cruise ship uses a satellite connection that works at 128,000 bits per second (128k baud). This is just twice as fast as a home dial-up modem -- and this is for the entire ship. Some ships double or quadruple this by adding more uplinks, but it isn't just a matter of hardware; they also have to pay for the portion of each satellite's bandwidth capacity they use. The cost to the cruise ship for this connection is about $10,000 a month.

This is where MTN comes in again -- the company buys that satellite bandwidth in bulk and re-sells it to the cruise lines.

They also need to manage earth stations for the satellite downlink. These stations receive the traffic from the ship and connect it to the Internet. For Regent, for example, they use an earth station in New Jersey, and a backup in Florida. Weather and other issues could interrupt service.

There are systems on every ship to manage what is sent to the satellite. According to Scott, passengers using the Internet on Regent Seven Seas always get priority over crew. In addition, some types of data require more and better-managed bandwidth than other types. Sending an email is easy, but downloading audio or video involves a tremendous amount of data.

Scott says of Regent, "Unlike other cruise lines, we offer our Internet service on a no-profit basis. We don't attempt to make money from it." Regent is a luxury line, and fares are much higher than average, but there are far fewer expenses once you get onboard. Mainstream cruise lines do make a profit on their Internet access -- or try to. Regent does charge for Internet access, but not as much as other cruise lines.

The Future of Shipboard Internet Access Regent just introduced a new Internet access technology called Riverbed that makes it much faster for the user.

It is a box inserted in front of the uplink to the satellite on the ship. Riverbed examines incoming data, analyzes it, and compresses it, like using vacuum-seal bags to pack your suitcase. Data compression is too complicated to go into, but it is a well-known practice that has been making the Internet faster for years. Riverbed's specialty is in interfacing with C-band equipment. The equipment is leased from MTN and is not cheap, but it makes the ship's Internet connection faster and more cost effective. Each of the earth stations also needs Riverbed to decode the data.

If you are on a Regent Seven Seas ship, you will notice when you go online that each page will appear much faster, your email will download much faster, and sending a picture or other large file will take far less time.

Scott said most lines use their "always on" Internet connections to constantly synchronize operational data between the ship and the mainland. In the old days, ships had internal networks and everything was managed locally, with reports sent to the mainland at the end of each cruise. These days, a cruise line can know exactly how much beer is being sold on a ship at any given time just by looking at the data. They can pre-book shore excursions or spa appointments and share the data with the ship in real time.

In the future, Internet access will get faster and cheaper. In a way, it is a miracle they can offer it at all, and they are already squeezing everything they can into what limited bandwidth they have available. But within a few years, ships should be able to access the more numerous and less expensive low-orbit telecom satellites. This will be a big leap forward. And like all technology, the more people use it the cheaper it gets. Most cruise lines will likely adopt systems like Riverbed soon.

For people like me, who cannot travel without Internet connectivity, this will make a tremendous difference in my ability to take any cruise. On Regent Seven Seas, the advantages for people like me are already there.

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