One of the biggest challenges of traveling these days, besides cramming all beauty products into 100 ml tubes, is communicating with your fellow travel companions.
This is because we suddenly find ourselves “unplugged”; whether it’s no longer having immediate access to a computer, having zero cell phone reception, or a fear of racking up an insane amount of roaming fees. All things we take for granted in our daily routine back home.
This feeling is especially poignant if you find yourself aboard a cruise ship, far away from land and anything resembling a cell tower. All you can see from deck is that beautiful sunset on the horizon, an endless stretch of blue cascading waves, and the occasional jumping dolphin. And no, it’s not the wallpaper on your phone.
Thankfully, these days cruise lines now provide internet cafes, cell phone service, and even full Wi-Fi coverage. Ouf.
Mobile phone coverage
But, how is it possible to have full signal bars in the middle of the ocean?
Wireless Maritime Services (WMS), a joint venture between AT&T and MTN Satellite Communications, offers an advanced roaming network on-board most cruise ships. The service is activated while the ship is at sea, and turned off when at port where travelers can then connect to the local land based network.
It works by using a type of dual satellite communication done through a VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal). The problem is that ships at sea move with the water, so the antenna needs to be stabilized with reference to the horizon and the head of the ship. With this setup, the antenna is now assured to be constantly pointing at the satellite it uses to transmit and receive signals no matter how bumpy the waves are. The actual waves, not the digital ones.
So yes, cell phone coverage is now available on cruise ships; but no, it’s not cheap.
International roaming charges still apply, and apply they do. It’s the mobile phone carriers that determine the rates, even though the phone will display a different network such as cellular@sea when roaming. Be sure to check with your provider ahead of time. For example, Verizon and Sprint charge $2.49 per minute while Rogers charges $7 per minute (!).
The installation of Wi-Fi networks on-board a vessel also has its own unique challenges. With the amount of metal hulls in the bulkheads and zones that can be shut off with impermeable fire doors, the environment is less than ideal for wireless signals. It’s not only physical challenges though, another layar of complexity is added with the multiple types of network configurations needed because of the different classes of voice, Internet access and data plans for various types of crew and passengers.
The Royal Caribbean’s massive Oasis of the Seas has as many as 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for example. Even if some cruise lines don’t have complete Wi-Fi coverage, most have selected hot spot zones, and everybody has at least a sort of Internet cafe.
Celebrity Cruises actually opened a mini Apple Store on board called iLounge earlier this year. Passengers can buy products such as MacBooks to iPods, take courses such as iPhoto or iMovie, and not have to suffer from Apple withdrawal – symptoms akin to sea sickness.
For any company these days, having an iPhone app is practically mandatory, with cruise lines being no exception. Cruising through the iTunes App Store reveals plenty of related apps which have all your standard information such as schedules and deck maps.
I’m not going to list and describe them all here, but I will mention the Costa Cruises’ iPhone app which has some more interesting features. The app allows users to take a 360 degrees “real virtual tour” (aware of oxymoron) of the ship with overlapped content such as photos and descriptions. It also includes an interactive geo-localisation system which maps out all the ships’ positions in real time. You can even “follow” the ships, take a peak of what’s going on through the live webcams, and of course click on a direct link to book your next cruise.
Costa Cruises is also one of the few companies who realize that not everyone in the world has an iPhone. They launched two mobile sites which provides information and rich multimedia content for their most popular destinations: Dubai and the Mediterranean.
The service costs $17.50, which compared with roaming charges is a bargain (less than 3 minutes with Rogers). Unless of course you loose it, in which case you will be charged $1,000. You can also get the app for your own personal iPhone, but you will still have to pay for the app.
PPI Group, a company that provides onboard and shoreside programs for major cruise lines, teamed up with Cellflare to provide a mobile port shopping service. Travellers download the mobile app and opt in to receive port-of-call shopping information and coupons through Cellflare’s location-based marketing feature.
One could of course argue that the purpose of vacation is to disconnect from technology and the burden of gadgets.
However, there is some usefulness to having your mobile phone onboard. It’s the best way to touch base with your travel companions, especially for events such as weddings where co-ordination is crucial, a good way to track the little ones, and a useful guide to the ship’s events and on-shore shopping deals.
If cruise lines want to encourage people to use their phones, to up-sell excursions or to replace the daily paper schedules for example, then they need to subsidize the roaming charges. But perhaps that’s not in their best interest considering the huge profit margins they get (by the way, making a call from the cabin can cost up to $15 a MINUTE).