Imagine you are on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles from land, and want to make a phone call or access the Internet. Did you ever wonder how your wireless device works when there are no cell towers or traditional infrastructure available like at home? And more importantly why it does not work better, faster or cheaper for voice and data applications?
The ability to communicate while at sea is incredibly complex and has only been possible and reliable within the past ten years. Unfortunately, the connectivity comes at a steep price because of the high investment required by the cruise lines and satellite carriers who must price access by the amount of bandwidth that is used. It turns out that this is a highly inefficient and costly method to allow passengers and crew to communicate, and the formula is about to change.
While the state-of-the-art has dramatically improved there are still many technical obstacles to achieving the same level of interconnectivity that we experience on land through wired or wireless networks. Cruise ships are seeing dramatic increases in traveler demand for communications services caused by the use of smartphones, laptops and tablets as part of their vacation experience. The bottom line for the consumer is that current cruise communications networks aren’t designed to meet these voracious demands for mobile connectivity.
Consider the following statistics from MTN Communications, one of the biggest sellers of telecom equipment to the cruise ship industry:
- Internet Logins – In the past five years, Internet logins on the MTN network almost doubled from approximately 15 million to 27 million per year;
- Voice Usage – Based on revenue data over the past five years, voice usage increased approximately 50 percent;
- VSAT Bandwidth – In the past five years, bandwidth demand among MTN VSAT (high-speed) customers increased six-fold from 75 Mbps to 475 Mbps per year
Virtually all of the fleet has WiFi throughout their ships but it is painfully slow at times which is due to the number of users and available bandwidth. There are also severe limitations on the types of files that can be accessed in order to protect the network and compensate for the bandwidth limitations. Internet access costs between $.25 and $.75 per minute, depending on the selected plan.
Cellular voice and data is available on all ships but is very costly, up to about five dollars a minute through your local carrier, or up to ten dollars a minute if you use Intelsat satellite links through the ship’s voice network. Data connections through cellular can also be very pricy unless you have a data plan. Verizon is the only American carrier that offers a good deal for their customers that use tablets or smartphones on ships. They have a monthly cost of $25 for each 100 Mbytes.
While AT&T has a similar plan it doesn’t allow for data access at sea, which means you can pay around $20 per megabyte. That translates to a high cost for using email and sending pictures, to say nothing of downloading documents. If you try to save money by using a VoIP service such as Skype to make and receive calls you will have limited success because of the latency issues with voice transmission through a satellite, whether you establish a WiFi or cellular connection.
When you are on a ship, all telephone, data, and video traffic is carried through a complement of large satellite dishes found on the top deck.
One global company based in Florida, MTN has for the past thirty years pioneered and developed satellite-based services for virtually all of the cruise ships and cargo carriers in the world. The Maritime Telecommunications Network began offering services when the Intelsat constellation was launched in 1965. The introduction of these orbiting repeaters changed the way the world communicated and four years later we watched the result during the first lunar landing that was relayed through Intelsat.
There is no simple technical solution to improve the passenger experience in connecting with the outside world while at sea. Provisioning more bandwidth from the satellites is not the answer without also considering land-based services and on-ship clouds for caching of data. As reported by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, smartphone sales have overtaken PC sales in 2012 and in the future will dwarf the amount of data used by laptops. This is also true for ship passengers and has caused the industry to respond.
Consumer demand, economics, and technological advancements have driven MTN to launch its next-generation platform to serve the cruise ship industry. It is called NEXUS, and it will ultimately change the way we communicate to fellow passengers and to the rest of the world.
One deficiency in the way communications facilities are presently configured is the lack of interoperability between onboard WiFi systems and those on shore when the ship docks. That means that cruise lines cannot take advantage of the newest technology to handoff high-volume traffic and to cache large files. To solve this problem MTN is building a seamless network to tie onboard and on-shore systems together as part of a larger plan to enhance connectivity, regardless of where the passengers wishes to talk, text, or transfer data.
MTN has invested in the design and launch of special-purpose satellite payloads that will ride on the next generation Intelsat EPIC platform which will offer at-sea communications experience which is presently impossible to achieve.
There are three essential components to NEXUS: network, applications, and storage. In simplified terms the system will be a hybrid network of satellite and terrestrial facilities tied to a ship cloud to transfer very large amounts of data and store it onboard. Client applications, Internet café, cellular Mobile at Sea, TV, social media and other applications will all be merged and seamless for passengers.
This is accomplished by sophisticated control and manipulation of satellite spot-beams, on-the-fly bandwidth allocation from the satellites, and data compression. A large part of the equation is WiFi for data transport which is why MTN is building an infrastructure to tie WiFi on land to ships when they are within a few miles from shore. This will allow them to optimize expensive bandwidth from Intelsat to route all other traffic to land-based systems.
If you have wondered why connections are so slow it is because presently there are only a few megabytes of bandwidth that must be shared among all passengers and facilities on any ship. In the future it will not be megabytes but terabytes that will be available.
The next generation system will also offer a unique application called Connect at Sea. This will fill a needed gap in ship-to-shore communications and also provide for friends and family to be able to communicate onboard without high cost by giving direct dial capability between smartphones. Connect at Sea will eliminate this problem and allow voice, text, and messaging between smartphones, just like Skype and other applications can accomplish on land. This is a WiFi-based service that can be used onboard, in port, or anywhere there is a suitable WiFi connection. It will go a long way to reduce the high cost of communications for passengers on a global basis.
In the near future whether you are in the middle of the ocean or docked at a foreign port, your personal communications device (whether smartphone, Blackberry, laptop or tablet) will provide equivalent communications that we have all come to expect at home. It will all be possible because of sophisticated networks, powerful computing, low cost bandwidth terrestrial integration, and seamless switching. No more $5.00/minute phone calls and no delays in transmitting or receiving emails or access to websites.
A short half-century ago when the first Sputnik satellite was launched by the Soviet Union it is fair to say that nobody could have foreseen the results today. Today, we expect and demand such services whether we are on a mountain top or in the middle of an ocean.