Wireless technology redefines ship-to-shore calls

Wireless technology redefines ship-to-shore calls

Technologies that have emerged in the last two years have lowered costs for making wireless voice or data calls at sea, creating a revenue incentive for cruise lines and making calls from the middle of nowhere commonplace.

Island Cruises, a small cruise line based in East Sussex, England, was one of the first to enable passengers to use cell phones while on board -- and being an early adopter has paid off, Patrick Manuel, director of IT for the cruise line, said in an interview last week. "The world's making a shift to cellular and it's considered part of everybody's life," he said. "Our cruise line customers expect it, and the movement of wireless data to handhelds has definitely made me very happy we can support it."

While at sea, a user's cell phone call is transmitted to small distributed radio antennas that look like ceiling smoke detectors throughout the ship. Those antennas connect via a cable to a satellite dish and from there are transmitted to a satellite in space and then back to land. The system is installed Island Cruises' two ships, which can carry a combined total of 3,600 passengers.

Island Cruises gets a portion of the cell phone calling revenue, which Manuel would not disclose, while customers today pay only a fraction of what the calls cost two years ago.

Today, passengers can browse the Internet, send e-mail and make or receive cell phone calls to a party thousands of miles away on board dozens of ships from various cruise lines, according to Manuel and industry analysts. The per-minute cost ranges from 75 cents for Web browsing to US$2-5 per minute for voice calls, depending on the user's cellular provider, analysts said.

Full-time connections from a phone in a passenger's cabin became possible about a decade ago, and at the time cost about US$15 a minute. Those prices have dropped to US$6 to US$8 a minute now, said Rob Marjerison, general manager of Wireless Maritime Services (WMS) which provides cellular services to Island Cruises. Then, about five years ago, on-board Internet Cafes came into vogue, followed more recently by the growing popularity of WiFi.

"People expect to be able to stay in touch wirelessly these days," Marjerison said.

Manuel said coverage with the WMS system is pervasive and "works well," even though metal on board a ship makes wireless connections more challenging. The satellite connection tends to create a small delay in voice calls, "but that is generally your expectation when you travel," he said.

Manuel said he investigated a variety of wireless technologies two years ago, but settled on WMS partly because WMS relies on a remote monitoring system provided by LGC Wireless of California. The remote monitoring is done by WMS from Florida for about 30 ships, to help reduce the number of dropped calls and improve call quality, Manuel said. "We're not in the telephone business," he said.

LGC also allows WMS to use fiber or category 5 or 6 copper cable to connect the distributed antennas to the cellular switching hardware, which is flexible and easier to use on a ship than rigid coaxial cable, Manuel said.

Competitors to LGC's technology include MobileAccess in Vienna; Inner Wireless Texas; RadioFrame Networks in Washington; Nokia in Finland; Ericsson in Sweden; and Motorola in Illinois, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates in Massachusetts.

WMS has installed the LGC technology on 30 ships so far, with another 50 under contract, Marjerison said. In all, there are about 120 large cruise ships now plying the waters around the globe, many capable of carrying thousands of passengers each.

WMS provides GMS and CDMA cellular switches on each ship to serve for customers with different service plans, Marjerison said. The cost of equipping a single ship with the wireless technology is up to US$100,000 for cable installation, up to US$300,000 for switches and another US$250,000 for the satellite dish and related electronics, Marjerison said. Most ships already have satellite dishes in place.

Manuel said one major issue in setting up the service is getting roaming agreements with carriers. WMS has so far arranged partnerships with 340 carriers worldwide.

The cellular service has given Island Cruises and Manuel a few bragging rights. "Working for a smaller cruise line, it's given me the ability to be more of a cowboy out there," he said. "Sometimes there were growing pains, but I beat the big boys. Cruise lines are very competitive, so it pays to be a little different."

Now that other cruise lines have begun to catch up, Manuel is watching out for the next wireless application to come along -- as is Marjerison, who is now weighing the popularity of wireless video.

"Right now, e-mail and messaging are big," Marjerison said. "Wireless TV will come, but not in 2006. Maybe by 2010."

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