Better cruise connectivity is crucial, but there are still challenges to be overcome. Simon Maher* explains how to overcome these obstacles and achieve stronger connectivity
This year, the cruise industry entered into a new golden age, with passenger numbers soaring to unprecedented highs and records being set in multiple arenas including passenger capacity and number of newbuilds.
The rapid growth of the industry is reflected in the increasing size of each new vessel – in March, Royal Caribbean unveiled the latest addition to its fleet, Symphony of the Seas, which set sail on its maiden voyage with over 5,500 guests and more than 2,000 crew members. The vessel is the largest cruise ship ever constructed – a sure indication of where the market is currently heading. Indeed, according to a report by CLIA, 27.2M people are expected to go on cruises in 2018 – 1.4M more than the previous year and a 10% increase on 2016.
New challenges for a new generation
Despite its wins, the cruise industry is also facing immediate pressures, precipitated by increasing popularity among new audiences. In today’s digitalised world, demand for high-speed internet is exploding in all mobility markets, and passenger ships are no exception. Gone are the days where people went on cruises to ‘get away from it all’. People now want to be able to surf the internet, Skype with friends and upload photos to their social media accounts anywhere in the world and at the same speed as they would at home.
Guests aside, connectivity also has the potential to transform the working environment for the 1M+ staff who work in the cruise industry. Isolation continues to be a major issue for those working offshore, with many cut off from friends and family for weeks at a time. A recent survey of seafarers by Knect365 emphasised the importance of internet access for seafarers, with 75% of respondents saying connectivity is an important factor when choosing an employer. This is an important reminder to shipowners wanting to attract and retain the best crews.
Needless to say, solving the connectivity conundrum on board ships is no easy feat. On land, remote connectivity can be achieved through three ways: trenching fibre, point-to-point microwave towers or via satellites. Far out at sea, however, shipowners are restricted to the last of these options. And when it comes to satellites, the cruise industry has been plagued by old technology for years. Single high-orbit satellites with under-developed, fragmented and unreliable systems have led to low expectations among passengers, with many viewing high-speed internet as something limited to land-based destinations.
Building for a more-connected future
Today the landscape is changing. When SES Networks entered the cruise industry, we saw a clear opportunity to harness our technology to drive a new era of connectivity where service consistency is the norm, not the exception. Our mission was to dispel the myth that it is impossible to have a fantastic internet connection at sea – even in the remotest locations.
In a maritime industry-first, we offer multi-orbit (GEO and MEO) satellite-enabled connectivity solutions, available in multiple bands (Ka-, Ku- and C-band). Our multi-orbit and multi-band constellation of interoperable satellites and the combination of GEO wide beams, GEO high throughput beams and MEO constellations, allow us to deliver an enhanced guest connectivity service to the cruise market, scaling from 100 Mbps to >1 Gbps to a single cruise ship.
We continue our investment programme with a strong satellite fleet roadmap built on an advanced HTS strategy. Our HTS strategy started when we invested in O3b Networks in 2009. The launch of SES-15, followed by SES-14, the latest four new O3b satellites, the upcoming SES-12, and another four O3b satellites scheduled to be launched in H1 2019 are an extension of that strategy. This unique integrated offering combination delivers comprehensive coverage, massive throughput and the market’s only fibre-like satellite connectivity.
The latest generation of mega cruise ships is being designed to improve passenger services by incorporating the latest technology and design features to meet the needs of guests of all ages, allowing passengers to choose if they wish to remain connected or disconnect while on vacation.
Simon Maher is SES Networks vice president of global maritime services