Monday, 3 November 2014

Carnival Corp. embraces hybrid WiFi technology

Carnival Corp. embraces hybrid WiFi technology

By Tom Stieghorst
Carnival TriumphCarnival Corp. has begun rolling out a major upgrade in the way its ships access the Internet that the company says offers a tenfold average speed improvement over the previous system.

The platform, based on a different technology than the system used by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), has already been installed on 10 ships in the Caribbean. Most of those are in the Carnival Cruise Lines fleet, but some are also operational on Princess Cruises and Holland America Line vessels.

As the Princess and Holland America ships move to Alaska next summer, the technology will be inaugurated in that region.

Eventually, Carnival plans to use the system globally on all 101 ships sailing in its brands’ fleets, said Ramon Millan, Carnival Corp.’s global chief information officer.

“The dream of having reliable and fast Internet access is what we’re trying to offer,” Millan said.

Balky, slow Internet access is one of the chief frustrations for cruise passengers. As more bandwidth has become available over the past decade at ever cheaper prices on land-based systems, cruise ships have been hamstrung by their dependence on satellite connectivity.

Most satellite-based systems use geostationary satellites, requiring signals to travel 23,000 miles up into space and back, which creates a latency that slows page loading. The technology required to use such satellites at a reasonable cost also creates bottlenecks that slow messages leaving and arriving to the ships.

Carnival and RCCL both have now abandoned geostationary satellites as a sole vehicle for their Internet data.

The Carnival solution is a hybrid system that only uses satellites for some Internet connections and switches to land-based connectivity whenever it’s available. It relies on sophisticated routers to switch among several different types of WiFi and satellite services fleetwide to find the fastest, clearest, cheapest route for signals at any given time.

Millan said the hybrid system enables ships to adapt to their regional situation as they move along their itineraries.

Transmission rates, he said, are “not the same when you are in the middle of the ocean, in the Gulf of Mexico, or when you are close to Florida.”

One key to the hybrid approach is a form of long-distance WiFi that ships will use within 40 miles of shore.

Millan said it operates much the same as regular WiFi, but with the help of powerful amplifiers. “It is similar to what you have at home but with an amplifier that allows us to send the WiFi signal up to 40 miles away from shore.”

Switching to the long-range land-based WiFi when available also frees up satellite bandwidth for ships farther out at sea, which boosts their speeds as well.

Millan cautioned that the service speeds he cited were only averages and might be slower in areas such as the open Atlantic, where only satellite connectivity is available. He said the bandwidth improvement claims have not been audited by independent third parties, but that Carnival has tested the claims of its vendors.

“We do have our own technology team onboard, and we use our own tools,” Millan said.

Among th
Ramon Millane suppliers for the new hybrid system will be Harris Caprock and MTN Satellite Communications, one of the pioneers of the hybrid approach to ship connectivity.

Millan said the system has been tested in pilot projects over the past year and a half, and one of the key tests has been how many seconds it takes a given technology to load test pages, including those from banks, which have robust authentication protocols that require extra bandwidth.

He said Carnival has also been using routine crew communications in field testing.

The line has been surveying guests about their experience of the new system and converting their answers into system scores. He said the scores with the hybrid approach are more than 50% higher than they had been with previous systems.

Millan said the new capacity will enable guests to access websites that had been blocked previously because they absorbed too much bandwidth, primarily social media sites such as Facebook.

He said social media sites are increasingly embedding video into their presentations, which takes even more capacity. “The world is changing,” he said. “And what these guys are offering — Google, Facebook, Twitter — is something that demands more bandwidth, more connectivity.”

Carnival Corp.’s largest competitor, RCCL, is taking a different approach to connectivity that relies on the use of mid-orbit satellites to increase Internet speeds.

Unlike the geostationary satellites used by most systems, midorbit satellites circle the Earth at much lower orbits, reducing the latency in the transmissions to and from the ships. But because they are not always in the same point above the Earth, they must be tracked as they move across the sky from horizon to horizon, requiring more sophisticated technology.

The system has been in testing on the Oasis and Allure of the Seas and is expected to debut on the Quantum of the Seas when that ship arrives to start Caribbean cruises from New York later this month.

Recent tests show the midorbit services supplied by O3b Networks achieving transmission speeds of 500 megabits per second.

Millan said Carnival is not providing a speed comparison. “This is not about megabits,” he said. “And the reason I say that is because that is misleading. You may have a lot of megabits but the experience is not good. There are many factors that contribute to a good experience.”

Millan said Carnival started out looking for a single solution but came to the conclusion that a hybrid system provided more flexibility to adapt and less risk.

Besides, he said, the Carnival system, which will be known as WiFi@Sea, is orbit agnostic and could eventually incorporate midorbit satellites such as those used by O3b.

“At this point, we’re using C-band and K-band, the conventional satellite frequencies, but we are not precluding using low-orbit satellites,” Millan said. “We have the footprint to adopt new technologies into the model as they become available.”

Pricing for the new service is being left up to each brand, Millan said. Most Carnival Corp. brands charge 75 cents a minute for Internet access, with various discounted volume plans available.

Millan said that WiFi@Sea will be the foundation for new services in the future. “We do have some applications we are testing in some of these brands,” he said. Possibilities include news delivery, port information and online gaming services, he said.

He emphasized that Carnival Corp. believes that flexibility is the key to designing a cruise ship Internet service.

“The technology is changing so fast that the one that is the best right now may be obsolete in a week,” he said.