By Scott Hamilton
I spent the last six days on a cruise ship traveling around the Western Caribbean and I learned a little about the issues faced on cruise ships when it comes to internet access. The particular ship that I sailed on was last refurbished in 2012 and was manufactured in 1996. Judging from the quality of the wifi signal on board, I can only assume the technology has not been upgraded since the refurbishing in 2012. So for the last week this technology expert was dealing with eleven year old technology, which in the computer world is like driving a Ford Model T.
You might wonder why they have not updated the gear on the ship; I did as well, until doing a little research. The older wifi signals reflected from the metal walls in the ship and allowed for better coverage than modern 5G wifi signals. They result in lower speeds, but better ship-wide coverage. I am not sure how newer cruise ships overcome the impact of the steel walls within the ship on the wireless network service. What I do know is that wifi on the ship seemed to be a real challenge for the cruise line.
The cruise industry is trying to compete with the hotel industry in providing all the necessary amenities, among that include cable TV channels and internet access, but they seem to be failing in both of these arenas. It is not without reason, caused both by the construction methods used on the ship and the fact that the ship is in constant motion. I already mentioned the impact of the solid steel construction of the ship. If you have never been on a ship, you need to know that the walls, even in the individual rooms, are all steel. This makes it very difficult to get good wifi coverage, because the steel of the walls blocks the radio frequency signals of the wifi.
The secondary impact is the fact that cellular towers and tower based internet have a limited radius of around 15 miles; newer 5G towers have a tighter radius of less than a mile. This means that the cruise ship can only rely on ground-based towers for a very limited distance from shore. The remainder of the cruise must be covered by satellite-based internet services. This brings up the secondary problem, satellite internet requires precisely positioned receivers, which is nearly impossible on a moving ship. It also requires line-of-sight access to the satellites.
The line-of-sight issue is the final issue with cruise line internet access. You see there are very few commercial internet satellites over the ocean, mainly because the way the satellite companies make money is from the number of customers that access the service. It is not cost effective to the internet service providers to provide coverage over the water. So we now know most of the reasons internet access on a cruise ship is slower and less stable than land-based internet, but what we need is a solution. I noticed that access worked fairly well near islands and while in port, but was barely usable on sea days. Knowing the reasons behind the issues makes it easier to decide not to pay for the added service on a cruise and enjoy being off the net.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.