Surfin' at Sea
By Joachim Bamrud, Mon Aug 27 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Going for a cruise on the ocean, but can't live without the 'net? No problem.

You can still keep in touch through e-mail and surf the Internet, thanks to new technology being used on cruise ships.

After visiting the Grand Cayman islands, Vance Gulliksen was on his way to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. He was traveling on the Imagination, a 2,052-passenger vessel from Carnival Cruise Lines. And there, in the middle of the Western Caribbean Sea, the Miami-based PR executive surfed the Internet to find the latest news and check his e-mails.

Gulliksen, a public relations supervisor with Carnival, was using the ship's Internet cafe. "It's a real blessing. I'm very glad we have [the Internet service], believe me," he says.

Welcome to seafaring in the 21st century. Once-vital breakthrough technologies like Morse and telex are now a thing of the past and satellite phones - albeit not disappearing - will likely see reduced usage.

While some people will undoubtedly question the value of taking the Internet with them on what is supposed to be a vacation, others clearly welcome the opportunity to use a technology that enables immediate connection with relatives, friends and - yes - even colleagues and employers.

And for workers on oceangoing vessels, such access can prove to be more than a luxury, helping increase connection with family and significantly reduce phone expenses. For many sailors and crew on merchant vessels, the relatively expensive satellite phones aren't even an alternative, and isolation from loved ones when at sea is a daily burden and reality.

"The biggest plus [of Internet access at sea] will be an improvement in quality of life, giving users increased accessibility to family and families increased accessibility to their father, daughter or other family member at sea," says Captain Rejean Lanteigne, vice president of the Canadian Ship Owners Association.

A mobile home for millionaires

Then, there are those permanent ocean residents that will be living on The World, a new luxury ship set to launch in January. The ship, which includes 110 apartments that cost $2 million a piece (as well as 88 guest suites), promises that its residents will have all the necessary communications and equipment to conduct their business onboard as if they were on land. The ship plans to sail continuously around the world, providing a mobile home for millionaires who want to see the world without leaving home.

"The services and facilities onboard The World will always equal those of any multi-national office - keeping in perfect step with the latest trends and technology," the ship's owner, ResidenSea promises on its Web site.

While no details were available on how that will be done, the Internet cafe used by Gulliksen and other guests on the Imagination was installed by Digital Seas International, a U.S. company that has installed similar cafes on other Carnival vessels as well as 11 other cruise lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess, Holland America and Disney Cruise Lines.

Some 20 percent of all guests on the ships with Internet cafes use the service, according to Digital Seas President Glenn Farrington, a former AOL executive who started the company four years ago.

The connection is provided by Maritime Telecommunications Network (MTN), also based in the United States. MTN provides satellite communications for most of the cruise industry.

In addition to providing immediate access to news, the maritime Internet access enables passengers to save money on communications. The average cafe charges $0.75 per minute versus $5.95 to $12.95 for phone calls, according to Farrington.

The Internet cafes also offer the ability to send pictures or 20-second videos by e-mail. A camera on the PC's can capture still or video images. In the case of the former, the photo can then be edited so that the guest is placed in a picturesque setting on the ship or one of the ship's ports-of-call.

The service, enabling users to send greetings before getting to port, can help indicate the potential for similar services on mobile devices, using third-generation technology.

Passengers who don't have a Web-based e-mail service can use an e-mail address provided by the ship. And, like a hotel, they can charge usage of the cafes to their cabin.

The next significant leap will be to provide full mobile phone coverage on vessels, enabling users of mobile devices to surf the wireless Net as they would on land. While passengers and crew on ships can today use their mobile phones in certain areas and at certain times, coverage has been mixed and unreliable.

MTN and BT A&M (British Telecommunications' satellite division) have been testing a new technology that provides regular mobile phone coverage on cruise ships. The phones would link to mini base stations on board the ships, that in turn would use MTN's satellite network to link to switching centers on land.

The technology, Cruise Connect, will be compatible with General packet radio service (GPRS) and Universal Mobile Telephony Systems (UMTS), the 2.5 and 3G technologies being implemented in Europe. MTN and BT are testing the service on a US-based ship, but could not provide any further details on when the service would be generally available.

The start of a trend

Farrington, of Digital Seas, says the main hurdle now is the business model rather than the technology.

"The question is how to bill and how to bill effectively," he says.

Several cruise lines are also looking into offering Wireless Local Area Network service on board the ships, enabling passengers to use their laptops to access the Internet by the pool or any other part of the vessel.

In the interim, the cruise industry is taking the next step beyond today's Internet cafe offer: installing Internet access in each passenger cabin. So far only a few vessels have done so, but MTN and Digital Seas executives expect that will be the norm with all new vessels being built.

"I can guarantee that within two years all new ships will have it," says Farrington. "It will go in the same direction as we saw with telecommunications, which went from phone booths to in-cabin phones."

Crystal Cruises started offering Internet access from each stateroom and penthouse on the Harmony and Symphony in March, although guests need to rent a laptop when using the service - at $5 a day.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Star and Norwegian Sun, two of its newest vessels, also feature in-cabin Internet access.

IBM announced in May that it had installed 500 new NetVista Internet appliances in crew cabins on the Radiance at Sea, the newest vessel from Royal Caribbean International. The cruise line also plans to install two additional ships with the service by the end of the year as part of a longer-term goal of providing all new ships with the service, according to IBM.

"Providing the cabin crew, many of whom spend up to six months at a time at sea, with the ability to e-mail home, take supplemental training courses and use basic office software in the comfort and privacy of their cabin, will enable them to stay connected - both personally and professionally," Royal Caribbean President Jack Williams said in the IBM statement.

Royal Caribbean started offering Internet access to passengers in September1999 on the Sovereign of the Seas and gradually installed the service on ten other existing vessels, as well as on the new Explorer of the Seas, launched in October last year. IBM provides the hardware, while ATCOM/INFO provides the software.

"We ... quickly realized the need to provide Internet access on more ships," Williams said late last year.

Carnival started offering Internet cafes in May last year, on the Carnival Triumph, and has since installed the service on 14 other ships. Each ship typically has between 10 and 12 workstations.

"Internet has become part of everybody's daily lives," says Gulliksen. "We've had an overwhelming response."

Carnival just started installing the service in crew areas as well and plans to provide all crew areas with the service by the end of the year. The cruise line's 15,000 crew members come from more than 100 nations, so the ability to communicate through e-mail while on board comes as a welcome alternative to calling friends and relatives when they're in port, says Gulliksen.

The first maritime Internet cafe was inaugurated two years ago, in August 1999, on the Norwegian Sky. Its usefulness was demonstrated when the ship ran aground in Canada the following month and passengers lined up to use the cafe to send e-mails to anxious relatives and friends.

But while the Norwegian Sky was the first to install the Internet cafe, it wasn't the first to offer e-mail connections at sea. Cunard Line and Crystal Cruises offered that in 1997 as part of special computer classes held on their vessels.

As for merchant and cargo ships, their use of Internet access technologies are probably a few more years down the road due to the relative high cost involved, predicts Lanteigne. As increased competition drives prices down, though, he believes vessels will start implementing such technology.

"It will be a quantum leap," he says.

Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.