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Internet at Sea: 9 Things You Need to Know

senior couple in a sunny place sitting in front of a computer waving to the screen

Remember a time when cruising truly meant getting away from it all? Blissfully unaware of work piling up at the office, no cell phones buzzing with messages or computers cluttering up luggage, the cruiser simply tuned out and kicked back. Those blissful days are not so long ago; Norwegian Sky was the first cruise ship to feature an Internet Cafe when it debuted in 1999.

But times have changed, and the Internet has become such an ubiquitous part of our lives that many of us can barely go 15 minutes, much less a week at sea, without checking email and texts. For those for whom being disconnected is unbearable, the good news is that the Internet is available on virtually all seagoing cruise ships (with the exception of a few barebones expedition ships). The bad news? Only a handful of ships offer landlike speed and reliability. The rest provide somewhat spotty and oftentimes slow service. To add insult to injury, Internet access can be rather expensive.

There is hope. Two of the industry's biggest players are investing millions of dollars into communication infrastructures, on land, on ships and in the sky via satellites, in order to provide Wi-Fi service more akin to what passengers are used to finding on land.

Over the next several years, these improvements will roll out to more and more cruise ships. Passengers will be able to send emails, stream movies and Skype or FaceTime with friends almost as easily as they do at home. But there will always be some level of unreliability, especially the further out to sea you sail.

No matter what type of Internet service you find on your cruise ship, there are tricks you can employ to get your Internet fix with less hassle. If you've ever cursed in frustration as your screen froze mid-email or are quivering in fear of being unable to check in as much as you'd like on an upcoming vacation, here are the nine things you need to know about Internet at sea.

cruise-internet-at-sea

1. Internet via satellite will never be as fast as your broadband at home.

It's the sad truth: Internet at sea, when provided by satellite service, is not going to be as fast as on-land connections anytime soon, though they are speeding up every year. To understand why shipboard Internet isn't comparable to the broadband you enjoy at home, you first need to understand the technology behind it. The big golf ball-shaped domes visible on top of cruise ships are protective shells that encase freely moving satellite antennae. These antennae transmit a signal from the ship to a satellite, which then sends a signal back down to Earth.

On land, there might be only two miles of fiber optic cable from your house to a main substation. The jump from your house to substation is virtually instant. But ships have to shoot a signal some 22,000 miles into space and then have that signal return to Earth about half a second later. Only then can it jump onto a fiber optic cable where transmission speeds are what you are used to. In order to avoid this issue, some cruise ships within the Carnival Corp family of brands (Carnival, Princess, Holland America Line, Cunard, and others) have begun linking with land-based towers when sailing close enough to shore to make the connection. By bypassing the satellite, even if just for a short while, Wi-Fi speeds up.

The biggest limitation to speed has always been the set amount of bandwidth a cruise line controls. All the data (for example, pages loading from browsing) being sent from the ship to the satellite and back has to use this fixed bandwidth. The clearest analogy is to consider the bandwidth as a straw, and the Internet pages you are trying to load or Skype calls you are trying to make the juice you are trying to drink. The wider the straw (or the more bandwidth the line purchased), the more juice (or Internet) can travel through at one time. As more satellites are sent into the atmosphere, the price of bandwidth continues to lower and cruise lines are able to buy more of it, thereby increasing the width of the straw. But that doesn't eliminate congestion entirely. As more people are on their computers or cell phones requiring data, congestion and slower speeds will occasionally plague passengers.

Finally, river boats (many of which offer free Internet) often offer a particularly frustrating online experience, if only because of heightened expectations. Being so close to civilization, you'd think there should be a quicker connection. However, hills or mountains in the river valleys often block satellite connections, so river ships are forced to use cellular for their primary Internet connection. (Avalon Waterways estimates that, on its European itineraries, the ships will use cellular signals for Internet 92 percent of the time.) When the ship is near a cell phone tower, newer 3G or 4G service can provide faster service than what can be delivered through satellite. The disadvantage comes in areas with a lack of cell towers, where the cell signal is weaker and the connection speed slower.

an enclosed satellite antenna on top of a cruise ship

2. Satellites don't come cheap -- so neither will Internet access at sea.

The satellites used for at-sea Internet connections cost hundreds of millions of dollars. One technology expert explains that "One consumer -- a cruise line -- can't afford to keep a satellite up in space. If we could, we'd have a brilliant connection. But instead the signal gets chopped up into a multitude of users, invariably slowing it down." He contrasts the huge potential customer base that satellite providers have in the United States and other heavily populated areas with the much smaller number of customers at sea. Many users can share the costs on land, while only a relatively few cruise ships, cargo ships and oil rigs can share the cost at sea. Inevitably, fewer users means higher costs.

Two companies, MTN Communications and O3b Networks, provide almost all of the satellite service for the cruise industry. While MTN doesn't actually own the satellites, the company rents space from satellite owners and, because of the accumulated volume it represents, can offer reasonable pricing.

Jonathan Selby, who runs his own consulting business working with passenger ships on communication issues, notes that MTN is probably taking a percentage of profits. "On the Internet and with cell phones, MTN normally shares revenue with the ship. So in order for everyone to make money, the costs have to go up to the consumer."

How much will you spend? Typical onboard Internet prices are 75 cents a minute, though you can buy packages offering anywhere from 60 minutes to 300 hours that work out to be cheaper on a price-per-minute basis.

On some ships, payment is per megabyte instead of by minute. On Disney Cruise Line ships, one MB costs 35 cents. As with per-minute pricing, buying megabytes via a package brings the price down. Pricing by the megabyte is also offered on select Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ships. As a rough guide, with 10 MBs you can spend 30 minutes on Facebook, Skype for four minutes or upload three photographs.

3. When onboard Internet is unreliable, the ship is not always to blame.

If you've cruised enough, you know that at some point, shipboard Internet simply won't work. Addicted as we are, we get frustrated and blame someone -- anyone -- assuming it is the ship or cruise line's fault. But, is it?

While cynics might speculate that cruise lines want slower connection speeds to drive up revenues onboard, the reality is that unreliable Internet can hurt the bottom line. According to a study by TripAdvisor, 57 percent of British vacationers check their email when on holiday in order to reduce the workload when they get back to the office. Many potential cruisers feel like Dave, who posted on Cruise Critic's blog, "One of the reasons I've never been on a cruise is the absence or high cost of Internet access."

In actuality, slow satellite-based Internet connections are beyond a cruise line's control. In order for there to be a connection, the antenna needs to be pointing at, and have an unobstructed line of sight to, the satellite. But sometimes that pathway between the antenna and the satellite is blocked. In port, it might be that a tall building is directly in between the ship and satellite. In the Norwegian fjords, the tall mountains often block satellites, so don't count on satellite reception there. However, it is true that the ship itself can block a signal -- on certain courses, the funnel or mast might be between the antenna and satellite.

Furthermore, when the ship has to change course particularly quickly, it isn't uncommon for the signal to be lost temporarily. (Consider this yet another reason to back up what you're writing frequently.) Yet, barring any obstructions, you can still get an Internet signal down in Antarctica and as far north as 80 degrees north latitude in Svalbard.

rendering of a cruise ship with abstract of its connection to a distant computer

4. Head for the Equator for a better connection.

Here's a reason to take that exotic cruise: the closer you are to the equator, the more reliable your satellite-based Internet service is likely to be. In order for satellites to have the maximum possible coverage, or footprint, the majority are positioned in a geostationary orbit above the equator. A ship on the equator will, therefore, have the satellite directly overhead; the farther from the equator the ship is, the closer the satellite will be to the horizon. This means the antenna is pointed at a lower angle, increasing the chance that a mountain or part of the ship will block the signal. If the Norwegian fjords were closer to the equator, there would be basically no connection issues, despite the challenge of the high mountains.

Also, the signal is strongest in the center of a satellite footprint and weakest as the edges are approached. Thus the connection speed will increase or decrease as the ship moves into or out of the footprint. While most cruisers are unaware of footprints and satellite coverage, you can get an idea of where those footprints are by viewing maps on the MTN website.

Remember, as mentioned in point one above, many cruise lines are transitioning to a hybrid communications solution that combines satellites with terrestrial broadband connectivity so that if you're not near the Equator you're not out of luck.

5. There are work-arounds for travelers who must get online on vacation.

For those searching for the fastest Internet connection, try to use the Internet when few people are online, such as late at night or in port when most passengers are ashore. The first is especially important while sailing far out to sea. The more people online sharing limited bandwidth, the slower the connection will be. Using the straw analogy, imagine you are trying to move more juice through the same-sized straw. Another tip, because some ships switch to terrestrial (land-based) towers when sailing close to shore, try saving the bulk of your Internet usage for times when you're nearest land.

Unfortunately, there isn't much else an individual cruiser can do. Users won't find any difference between connecting through Wi-Fi or through a cable to a potential data port in their cabin, nor will the ship's Internet Cafe offer any difference in connection.

Of course, the fastest -- and cheapest -- connection will always be onshore, and for those who simply want to check that all is well at home, using free Wi-Fi in port with your smartphone may be the best route. During my last two cruises in the Mediterranean and two cruises in the Caribbean this year, I've managed to find free Wi-Fi ashore near the pier in almost every port. Local tourism offices (or even the ship's crew, who seem to know all the hotspots in the ports they frequent) can be very helpful in pointing out where you can quickly connect and check your messages at your convenience.

Another useful tip is to simply write your email in a Word program or an offline version of your email provider, and then paste what you've written into an email (or hit send) as soon as you log in. It's best to have your own laptop if you want to take this approach, as many onboard computer terminals have been re-jiggered so you cannot access basic word processing programs like Microsoft Word or Notepad. This won't change your connection speed, but it may save you money and time.

a laptop with a lifesaver hanging on the side

6. Cruise ships do have a few tricks they can use to improve connection times.

Crystal invested a significant amount of money to improve its connection speed, and it's a good example of steps that other lines could take. Using a web accelerating company, the line installed two devices. The first is a proxy that identifies web pages that have already been accessed. For frequently accessed web pages, such as Facebook or the New York Times, the system stores the information needed to load the pages. This means that redundant data is not transmitted again and again every time someone visits one of those websites. With less data being transmitted via satellite, the page can load more quickly.

Crystal also uses a package shaper, which assigns higher priority to certain groups of traffic. The line says that passenger Internet is the highest priority -- 80 percent of the total bandwidth capability goes to passengers. However, the mail server for company emails is allocated only 5 percent, so potentially large messages, such as passenger manifests that the ship needs to send ashore, won't be able to hog bandwidth capacity for passengers. They can also give certain users priority. For instance, the cruise sales office gets a higher priority so that when a cruiser sits down to consider another cruise, a fast, live connection will quickly check availability. The line believes that, by using these innovations, it has reduced the data going through the same connection by 50 to 70 percent, allowing for significantly faster speeds.

7. Skype use will be limited.

Skype -- an Internet-based phone and video chat service -- is ideal for staying in touch with family, friends, colleagues and clients while on a cruise. But most ships either block the website altogether or have a connection that is so slow as to make it unworkable. When used with video capability, Skype is particularly troublesome as it automatically detects bandwidth limitations and tries to use as much of the fast connection as possible. Only a handful of ships currently provide enough bandwidth to passengers to enable Skype use.

A Crystal technical expert explains that, "Skype has been developed in a way that it always tries to improve voice quality as much as it can ... and this hogs bandwidth. For this reason, we block Skype onboard; two people on Skype can effectively kill the connection speed [for everyone else]." While not all lines ban Skype, many do, along with websites with streaming media like YouTube, which also use a proportionally high amount of bandwidth.

man sitting on a boat looking intently at a laptop screen

8. Turn your cell phone off to save money.

Cell phones are a particularly easy way to rack up expensive charges very quickly, as the caller is essentially billed by two companies. The satellite provider sets up a mini-cell tower on the ship and charges for the transmission that takes your voice and sends it to the satellite and back down to land. In addition, your cell phone provider (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) also charges a roaming rate. While you don't see a separate line in your bill from the satellite provider, rest assured it is getting a cut.

If you're looking to minimize costs, beware of incoming text messages. Keep your cell phone off -- or in airplane mode -- to prevent these charges, and don't use the mobile network provided by the ship to download messages. Data costs while roaming on a mobile network can be very heavy, so if you didn't bring your laptop and want to use your phone to surf or check messages, you are better off using the ship's Wi-Fi service. (Just turn off your phone's ability to access mobile signals, but keep the Wi-Fi ability active.) The rate is the same whether using a laptop or a cell phone, and those that want to quickly check messages need only log on for the few minutes it takes to download messages before signing off. Those who want to surf are still better off since they are not being charged for both data and minutes while roaming.

The best bet for smartphone users, however, is to find that free Wi-Fi hotspot ashore -- and download all your emails at no charge.

9. There's hope for the future.

There are other technologies that may prove helpful to the cruise industry in the future. For instance, several small expedition ships are now using Iridium OpenPort technology as a backup for their own internal use and for emergencies. This satellite system has worldwide coverage, and it allows data to be sent virtually anywhere. However, the capabilities are geared towards smaller vessels at the moment, and the cost is prohibitively expensive for the majority of today's cruisers. For riverboats, the growing prevalence of 4G networks will ensure faster connections than the 3G cellular networks that were, until recently, more common.

--by Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic Contributor and Dori Saltzman, News Editor

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