How does Wi-Fi on a cruise ship work and are we expecting too much?

Once upon a time a cruise was the ultimate ‘get away from it all’ holiday. Reading a book, chatting to other cruisers, or generally lounging around watching the sea roll by or the approaching coast of some faraway exotic land gradually come into view.

We now live in a world that demands that we are available constantly. Being 100 miles offshore on board a cruise ship is no longer a good enough excuse when your boss wants to confirm a ‘can’t wait’ meeting with you for 3 months time. Email, text and phone calls are the minimum most people require. That’s without the need for constant updating of social media. Now that Facebook has a much older user base, even those who are retired are in need of Wi-Fi so that they update their jealous friends on their latest Caribbean cruise.

Seeing that passengers are now expecting a decent internet connection, cruise lines have been busily working behind the scenes to improve the service. Don’t think for one minute that this is out of some sort of appreciation of passenger needs – this is about commercial value. Cruise lines know that they can charge a premium for Wi-Fi. The cruise operator offering some of the fastest Wi-Fi is Royal Caribbean. For a Wi-Fi package that allows a passenger to surf, send a few emails and update social media it starts at $9.99 per day. For a slightly uprated experience Royal Caribbean offers the Surf + Stream package allowing passenger to stream movies as well as using Skype. Prices for this service start from $14.99 per day, per device. Royal Caribbean claim that the speed of their internet connection is up to 6 times faster than any other cruise line. These increases in on-board internet connectivity speeds are in part due to a new breed of satellite network – SES Networks.

To understand how difficult it is to create an internet connection at sea, first consider how it works when you are at home – Wi-Fi connects you either to a hard line that might run underground in the form of cable, or you might be using a local mobile phone mast if you aren’t connected to Wi-Fi. Obviously at sea on a cruise ship these connections don’t exist. Either you have to wait until you are close to shore and then connect to the internet via a mobile phone signal, or you have to use the ships system which will be via satellite. As you can appreciate a connection to a satellite is ultra-expensive for a cruise line. They already use satellites for important positional and weather information, but not so that you can ‘check-in’ to the Champagne Bar on Oasis of the Seas.

In the past cruise lines had to use a single high-orbit satellite, but in recent years the SES Network has enabled them to take advantage of a fleet of medium-orbit satellites that have speeds that can rival most land-based fibre optic systems. This is however not cheap and the cost has to be shared by social media addicted cruisers.

For the moment cruisers who can’t do without their smart phones will have to pay the high cost for a connection to the web, but one does wonder what these folk are missing out on. Why stream a film when most of the big cruise ships have an on-board cinema or a live show? Do we really need to ‘check-in’ every single time we visit an area of the ship? Wouldn’t that time be better spent actually enjoying the moment?