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Cruise Lines Go Cellular

Cruise ships have long offered Web access to their passengers in onboard Internet cafés, but voice communications still had to go over the stateroom phones, which connect over the costly satellite-based ship-to-shore network. Now, the cruise industry is scrambling to provide conventional cell phone service, onboard WiFi networks, and mobile email over smartphone devices, like BlackBerries and Treos, to its customers.

Fueled by two competing providers, the maritime telecom business is booming, with most major cruise lines either already offering cell service or planning to in the near future.

"This has quickly become the standard for cruise lines," says Patrick Manuel, IT director at Island Cruises, which has installed new wireless networks on its two vessels, the Island Escape and the Island Star. "It's been around for only a very short period of time, but immediately every cruise ship realized they have to have it within the next 18 months."

"The cruise industry is eliminating one of the major differentiators between cruise ships and terrestrial resorts," points out Jim Ellis, CTO at SeaMobile Inc., one of the two major providers of onboard connectivity. "Whether you're a vacationer or a business person, if you're deciding between a vacation to Arizona and a ship, one thing that may differentiate them is wireless connectivity. Now that's no longer an issue."

Partners... and competitors
Founded in 2005 by a group of executives from McCaw Cellular and Direct TV, SeaMobile announced earlier this summer that it has contracted to install broadband wireless networks on two Crystal Cruises liners, the Crystal Serenity and the Crystal Symphony. The services available to Crystal passengers include cell phone coverage, mobile email for smartphones and PDAs, live TV, Internet cafés, and WiFi connectivity for laptops.

In May, SeaMobile acquired Maritime Telecommunications Network, the primary provider of worldwide satellite uplinks to the cruise-line and shipping industries. Prior to the SeaMobile acquisition, in Jan. 2004, MTN had entered into a joint venture with Cingular Wireless called Wireless Maritime Services -- which happens to be SeaMobile's primary competitor. Both SeaMobile and WMS connect to shore-based cell networks over the MTN satellite system.

WMS is the provider of Island Cruises' new wireless networks, based on equipment from LGC Wireless , which links remote nodes scattered over the ship with multimode fiber and Cat-5 cables, which are flexible and easily installed in the tight confines of an ocean liner, compared to the coaxial cable that often connects wireless microcells. Propagating a wireless signal across the steel-enclosed spaces onboard cruiseliners is not a simple task, says Manuel: "It was a fairly major install -- we did one ship during drydock, so we could run a bunch of cable, but the other we actually did while the ship was in service."

Email in the lounge chair
Deployment and testing of the Island Escape network in 2004 took six weeks. WMS installed the network on the Island Star in under four weeks. Typically, the service provider installs the network and splits the revenue with the cruise line. Roaming charges are added to the end-users' voice and data plans. Usage levels, says Boban Dragojlovic, vice president of computer services for Crystal Cruises, are hard to predict.

"I'm cautious about making predictions, because in our market segment, we carry very affluent customers who were not necessarily prevented from making [ship-to-shore] calls when they felt like it," he observes. "I see it more as a great convenience for our passengers."

Besides benefiting vacationers, the new networks will serve the ships' staff and crew as well as businesspeople using cruise ships for retreats and conferences -- a growing trend in the cruise line industry.

"One area where I definitely see big increases is in mobile email," points out Dragojlovic. "We see business customers and passengers more and more bringing BlackBerry-like devices on board our ships -- it allows them to get away from the office but still keep up with their critical work."

Of the 150-200 cruiseliners currently in service, Wireless Maritime Services expects to have networks installed on 60 by the end of this year, says WMS general manager Rob Marjerison. Jim Ellis of SeaMobile says his company has "30-40 ships equipped as we speak and a number of others under contract."

Beyond the cruise industry, both companies see big opportunities in networking big passenger ferries, oil and gas ships and drilling platforms, container ships, and private yachts. As content for mobile devices grows more sophisticated, providing increased bandwidth at sea will continue to be a challenge.

"We have a strong clear vision to enable any maritime user -- whether you're a cruise-ship passenger, a container ship crewmember, or a private sailor -- to use the full capabilities of wireless services to their full extent," says Ellis.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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