(12:05 a.m. EST) –Carnival Corporation & plc has unveiled a hybrid wireless network for its nine cruise brands that will bring onboard Internet speeds of up to 10 times faster than what is currently available to its cruise ships.
WiFi@Sea combines land-based broadband wireless systems with satellite technology to create a flexible network that can switch seamlessly between shore side antennas along a cruise route, port Wi-Fi and satellites for virtually uninterrupted Internet connectivity. The system will automatically choose the connection type based on which option will provide the best user experience at that time.
The result is frequent access to Internet connectivity speeds up to 10 times faster -- roughly comparable to the speed of Wi-Fi you'd find at a Starbucks -- than what passengers are used to experiencing.
"This is a major technology breakthrough designed to enhance the cruise experience for our passengers," said Ramon Millan, senior vice president and global CIO for Carnival Corp.
"Our goal is to give our passengers the best possible connection to the Internet whether they are in port, cruising near a coastal area or sailing in the middle of the ocean.
"It is different to be in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico versus being in the Port of Miami. You have access to different technologies. So our hybrid model is looking for what technology, in that specific moment and situation, offers the best connectivity and smoothly switches to it."
Millan compared the way WiFi@Sea works to a cell phone switching from one data connection to another while a user moves across a coverage area. The user never notices anything different, but behind the scenes the connection is constantly resetting and switching as the user moves around geographically.
In areas where ships are never far from land, the Caribbean for example, the connection will be almost entirely land-based, with virtually no need to rely on satellite. By disconnecting these ships from satellites, those that are at sea and must rely on satellite connections will have more bandwidth available, and thus should see far fewer slowdowns. (Bad weather can still adversely affect Internet connectivity on ships at sea.)
Faster speeds mean passengers will have more unrestricted access to video- and audio conferencing tools like Skype and FaceTime, as well as streaming movies and TV.
On the backend, the WiFi@Sea system is designed to keep up with the times.
"As technology changes, we can change how our network operates," Millan said. "It is very possible that one of the technologies we are using today in our network may be replaced by a newer, better technology a few months from now. That flexibility means we can constantly be on the leading edge of updating our integrated network and making sure our passengers have the best possible solution for staying in touch."
Already available on 10 Carnival Corp. ships including eight Carnival Cruise Lines vessels, one Princess ship and one Holland America Line ship, WiFi@Sea will roll out to many more Carnival Corp. ships sailing in the Caribbean during the fourth quarter of this year. Expansion will continue with Alaska in summer 2015, then to the Mediterranean, Baltic, Western Europe and Asia in 2015 and 2016.
Pricing will be determined by individual brands as service rolls out but Millan said passengers can probably expect to see new types of packages offered based more on a megabyte usage model than per minute pricing.
"The hospitality industry in general, not just the cruise industry, is moving toward that [megabyte usage model]," he told Cruise Critic. "It is a more optimal approach because it allows us to optimize the capacity that we do have and offer it depending on the needs of each guest, as opposed to treating everyone the same way and assuming everyone will use the connectivity in exactly the same way.
"I won't be surprised if we see one package for multimedia purposes and another package for email and text and another one for video conferencing."
But Millan also emphasized the growing prevalence of such packages does not mean every one of Carnival's brands will move in that direction. Each brand will determine what is best for its customer base, as well as what the actual pricing will be.
--By Dori Saltzman, News Editor