Not Getting Away from It All

By Adam Stone

September 20, 2006

The cruise ship industry is in its wireless infancy, but already one company, SeaMobile, is moving some ocean liners beyond just Internet cafes at sea.

Our communications have followed us from office to home, from car to cafe. Won't they ever leave us alone?

Apparently not. Thanks to the wonders of wireless, vacationers increasingly are able to plug in while plying the pristine seas aboard all-the-comforts-of-home cruise ships.

A chief player responsible for this development, Seattle-based SeaMobile, signed a deal recently with Crystal Cruises to provide wireless broadband communications equipment on two luxury ships, Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, later this year.

The deal marks another success in the ongoing effort to equip cruise ships with wireless telecommunications. While providers have been trying to break into the industry since at least 2000, it's only recently that deals have begun to get struck.

SeaMobile president Jack Donohue says the tight-knit nature of the industry at first slowed wireless adoption, and now is helping speed its way.

Just three cruise lines dominate over half the industry, Donohue says. Until one of those made a move toward wireless, little could happen in the industry. To get things moving, though, "all you needed was one of those guys to say yes."

If the cruise lines are saying yes now, it has a lot to do with changing consumer tastes. Until recently, "the cruise ship industry was very interested in a full experience for cruises, but one that did not include any technology," Donohue explains. The assumption was that cruisers were looking to escape.

"In the last two or three years, we have seen a very significant shift not only in what the cruise lines are trying to do but also in what cruisers want from their experience," Donohue says. "They want some kind of connectivity. They don’t want to get away from it all."

SeaMobile looks to provide that connectivity, alongside competitors such as Geolink and Maritime Communications Partner (MCP).

This spring, SeaMobile gave itself a boost by acquiring MTN, which provides wireless services throughout the cruise ship industry, including onboard ATMs, calling cards for crew members and downloadable newspapers, among other services.

More significantly, MTN's established VSAT solutions give SeaMobile the satellite connectivity it needs to deliver broadband at sea.

Connectivity is only part of the equation, however. As cruise-ship wireless needs have evolved, operators have made it clear they want solutions requiring the least possible involvement on their part. Thus telecom providers like SeaMobile have had to reach beyond mere technology in order to serve their markets.

"If cruise lines can just have somebody who gives them the revenue share and they don’t have to do anything beyond that, that's just perfect for them," Donohue says.

"The Internet cafe part is a fairly clever example," Donohue says. "MTN has an Internet cafe in most every ship, with eight to 16 stations, and they have an individual who goes out on every cruise as the internet cafe manager. That tells the cruise line, 'This is what we do best, so we want to send people who are very hands-on with what they do, and this is all they do.'"

That kind of high-touch program can be hard to maintain, with dozens of cruise ships plying the seas in several oceans on any given day. Thus SeaMobile augments its offerings with some shore-based support.

To keep up with maintenance and troubleshooting, for example, the company relies on technicians at a pair of West Coast operations centers. "We can monitor each ship, figure out what the bandwidth capability is, figure out how much they are getting, and if it is down, figure out why," Donohue says. "It's important to us to make sure our ships are up all the time."

While most problems can be fixed remotely, the company has dispatched techs to places as far afield as Venice, Dubrovnik, Singapore and, in one case, Vietnam. "One of our routers was fried and one of our guys had to go over and get it replaced," Donohue says.

Beyond the ubiquitous cafe concept, today's cruise ships boast a range of other wireless services, including connectivity for mobile phones, SMS, data services and Wi-Fi services, Donohue says. He notes that SeaMobile's latest efforts have lain in the direction of software development. The idea is that with more sophisticated applications, it should be possible to bring a higher level of reliability to existing wireless connections.

"We want to replicate the best experience you could possibly have on your mobile phone or your laptop," Donohue says.

Meanwhile, the cruise industry still is finding its sea legs in the wireless world. Some ships have been fully loaded with wireless services, while others have no connectivity whatsoever. To Donohue, all of this just means that there is plenty of room to grow. "We are in the real infancy of our industry," he says.



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