Guest demand for social media and online applications is pushing further investment in fast broadband VSAT and onboard wifi on passenger ships
Cruise ship operators are upgrading onboard and satellite communications across their fleets to deliver broadband and applications their guests expect as standard during their holidays.
Increasing demand is pushing owners to invest in new onboard wifi systems and communications hardware for new satellites. Bandwidth delivered to cruise ships is rising rapidly with more vessels absorbing over 100 Mbps of bandwidth on a regular basis. This is delivered through VSAT services, such as C-band and widebeam Ku-band, and increasingly high-throughput Ka-band coverage and high-intensity Ku-band spot beams.
Satellite operator SES has invested in new satellites for its constellations to boost bandwidth availability to cruise ships. SES executive vice president for technology programs and innovation Stewart Sanders explained to Passenger Ship Technology some of the possibilities and expectations of satellite communications for cruise shipping.
He said bandwidth of more than 2 Gbps is possible through the latest high-throughput satellites (HTS) as demonstrated in 2018. During that event, connectivity over the satellite link reached 2.4 Gbps on board 2014-built Regal Princess from Carnival Corp’s Princess Cruises brand. SES’ combined O3b medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites’ high throughput and low-latency Ka-band beams, complemented geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) coverage for Carnival Corp’s MedallionNet connectivity service, which is an exclusive feature of Medallion-class ships.
This record was achieved while the ship was anchored off Princess Cays in the outer Bahamas with service enabled over the O3b MEO maritime service.
As Mr Sanders told PST, this pushed the VSAT technology to a new limit, but is far in excess of what cruise ships require for daily operations; currently SES Networks enables connectivity services scaling from 100 Mbps to over 1 Gbps to a single cruise ship.
“We enable low-latency connectivity in hundreds of Mbps and can provide Gbps if required”
This is compared with a cruise industry average of around 30-50 Mbps per ship. But more bandwidth will be required in the very near future. “We enable low-latency connectivity in hundreds of Mbps and can provide Gbps if required,” said Mr Sanders during an exclusive interview at a satellite integration factory in Rome, Italy. “We have cruise clients operating ships from 100 Mbps, and this will continue to grow with peak operations today exceeding 800 Mbps over the O3b MEO maritime service.”
He explained why demand for low-latency broadband connectivity is climbing rapidly in the global cruise sector.
Passengers want to use a ship’s downlink connection for downloading media content, using high-definition streaming services, real-time online gaming and for video conferencing. All these requirements are provided by GEO and 16 O3b satellites when ships are in coverage.
SES maritime segment leader Greg Martin said cruise industry communications technology “is going through a significant change” with owners designing networks around guest internet requirements. “A lot of cruise lines are going through fleet drydockings to increase capacity and upgrade networks and onboard wifi,” he told PST. Around 80% of a cruise ship’s bandwidth is dedicated to guest services. The other 20% is split between providing crew welfare and communications for ship operations.
“A lot of cruise lines are going through fleet drydockings to increase capacity and upgrade networks and onboard wifi”
“Bandwidth limitations are in the past and we can provide 100-200 Mbps to ships,” said Mr Martin. “Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Oasis-class ships want 500 Mbps, which we can provide, and more.” SES provides bandwidth by coupling MEO broadband with the GEO constellation of satellites for these ships. The latest of these vessels, Symphony of the Seas, was delivered in March 2018, and Chantiers de l’Atlantique will deliver another vessel in 2021. In February 2019, the French shipbuilder announced that a sixth Oasis-class ship had been ordered by Royal Caribbean Cruises for delivery in 2023.
“We have 16 MEO O3b satellites in orbit and another four ready for launch in March 2019,” said Mr Martin. To use both MEO and GEO coverage, cruise ships need multi-band and multi-orbit antennas and terminals.
Carnival’s Princess Cruises is currently deploying tri-band antennas for SES coverage on ships as it rolls out MedallionNet. These are at least 2.4 m in diameter and operate in Ku-band and C-band for GEO coverage and MEO Ka-band when ships are within the O3b satellite service areas.
SES Networks pioneered Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Zoom internet service and has recently announced MSC Cruises’ new mega-build ships will be powered by SES Networks’ Signature maritime solution. These use the latest innovation in dual-band antennas on their ships for seamless connection between all satellite bands.
MSC Cruises has introduced onboard artificial intelligence and communications technology on its ships. It has started rolling out its first virtual personal cruise assistant, Zoe, and MSC for Me applications on its ships, starting with MSC Bellissima, then MSC Meraviglia, MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview. Zoe will help plan guests’ itinerary while on board cruise ships, while MSC for Me will interconnect guests with crew and the ship’s infotainment systems.
For cruise ships that do not need Ka-band, Intelsat’s EpicNG constellation can offer high-intensity spot beams of Ku-band in the main operating regions. This constellation is set to be completed when Horizons 3e is commissioned in Q1 2019.
This HTS was launched in September 2018 to provide high-throughput coverage over the Asia Pacific region. Intelsat joined forces with Sky Perfect JSAT Corp to deliver a major improvement in connectivity to shipping routes.
For cruise ships, Intelsat EpicNG has delivered more than 500 Mbps to vessels. This was demonstrated on MSC Cruises’ ship MSC Seaside over Marlink's Sealink VSAT.
During normal operations, VSAT bandwidth for the whole ship will not be as high as this, but will still be around 100 Mbps.
Intelsat vice president and general manager for mobility services Mark Rasmussen explained that EpicNG spot beams complement widebeam Ku-band from the rest of Intelsat’s satellites. Some of its satellites have both widebeam and spot beams. For example, Horizons 3e’s wide beams deliver connectivity over the whole Asia Pacific region, while spot beams are over the main population centres and shipping lanes.
This satellite has an advanced digital payload with full beam interconnectivity in commercial bands and significant upgrades on power, efficiency and coverage flexibility, said Mr Rasmussen.
Not all satellite connectivity needs to be global as some cruise ferries only operate in one region. For example, passenger ships operating in Norwegian fjords and into the Arctic can use Ka-band coverage on Telenor Satellite’s Thor 7 satellite for broadband communications.
Telenor Satellite director of data services Jan Hetland said this VSAT platform typically provides 30-40 Mbps as maximum bandwidth. “But, through platform upgrades we expect to be able to deliver 100+ Mbps later this year,” he told PST.
“Through platform upgrades we expect to be able to deliver 100+ Mbps later this year”
“In principle, we can deliver up to 300-400 Mbps to a single vessel but that would require a different service platform than we currently operate,” Mr Hetland said, adding “but this is definitely under consideration.”
Telenor Satellite introduced its Anker Ka-band maritime managed services, which uses Thor 7, for operators of ferries, cruise ships and other vessel types. It has three products – Anker Speed, Quota and Custom.
Through its reseller network, Telenor Satellite currently provides Ka-band Anker services to more than 50 passenger ships throughout the Thor 7 coverage area. The largest passenger vessels on this service can accommodate more than 2,000 passengers.
Mr Hetland said bandwidth demand from ferries is increasing as passengers expect connectivity for their mobile devices around the ship. “Increasingly we see ferry operators rolling out wifi services on board – sometimes as a paid service while for others it is free and available to all passengers,” he said.
Telenor Maritime has introduced mobile ecosystems on board Brittany Ferries ships. This includes VSAT connectivity hardware, wifi access points and mobile broadband backhaul on ferries operating between France and the UK, Ireland, and Spain.
A mobile ecosystem will also be installed on Brittany Ferries’ US$220M LNG-powered newbuilding, Honfleur, scheduled to be brought into operation between Portsmouth, UK, and Caen, France, in June 2019. This vessel, being built by Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft in Germany, will also be equipped with hardware to link to 3G mobile phone networks for additional passenger services.
“Connectivity drives all our customer communications, so it has never been more important to us,” said Brittany Ferries director of sales and customer experience Joëlle Croc.
VSAT connectivity will be delivered through a series of antennas linked to a below-deck equipment stack that includes antenna control and broadband management units, plus modem and wifi routeing modules.
Future of fjord communications
Future of the Fjords has antennas on the wheelhouse for connection with Norway’s 3G and 4G mobile phone networks
Also in Norway, an operator of all-electric ferries has installed forests of antennas and onboard wifi on ships. These networks deliver connectivity to passengers during their scenic voyages through fjords and soon this will be extended to city landscapes.
Owning group The Fjords operates 11 vessels in Western Norway’s fjords area, including two flagship electric-powered passenger ferries, Vision of The Fjords and Future of The Fjords. This company is jointly owned by tourist body Flåm and Norwegian ferry company Fjord1.
At the end of 2018, The Fjords announced that a third of these zero-emissions vessels, Legacy of The Fjords, would be built for passenger voyages in Oslo and the surrounding area. This carbon-fibre catamaran is under construction at Brødrene Aa shipyard in Norway and is due to enter service in May 2020.
The existing two sister vessels provide an optimal passenger experience while safeguarding the unique environments they sail in, said Flåm IT manager Geir Inge Tufte.
“The main idea is to give the guests a good experience that is silent and clean,” he told PST, while explaining there is infrastructure on board to deliver online services, including social media to 400 passengers. “Our guests are able to typically use Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and online news services,” he explained, using their own mobile devices during voyages.
This connectivity is also required for the onboard entertainment systems, connections to ticketing systems and a conferencing facility. Crew also need online connectivity for running onboard computers and operating systems, said Mr Tufte.
Communications systems on Vision of The Fjords and Future of The Fjords consist of antennas on the wheelhouse for connection with Norway’s 3G and 4G mobile phone networks. There are onboard 4G-enabled routers, switches and wifi access points and firewalls for cyber security, Mr Tufte explained.
“We provide wifi for all our guests for connectivity to the entertainment and ticketing, but we focus on having discreet designs,” he said.
“We provide wifi for all our guests for connectivity to the entertainment and ticketing”
Onboard entertainment systems include a NaviGuiding Server that provides guidance to guests during voyages. There are 14 screens of between 40-65-in in size and player panels.
There is a distribution system for audio and video and speakers inside and outside the main ferry accommodation. The screens are also used for conferencing, plus there are three projectors and an AKG microphone system.
As part of the operating systems on each of these ferries, Westcon Power & Automation provided the e-SEAMatic integrated automation system, energy management, drive power conversion and energy storage units. It also supplied an e-SEA manoeuvring control system and the main switchboards.