Bill Martin, CIO for Royal Caribbean

The cruise industry may be catching up to shoreside when it comes to internet speeds and availability onboard.

Royal Caribbean International has confirmed major internet upgrades for passengers and crew aboard their 225,000-ton Oasis of the Seas starting in summer 2013.

The Miami-based cruise line recently announced a new deal with communications provider Harris CapRock for its fleet, and will take that a step further for the Oasis, partnering with O3b Networks and O3b Maritime to significantly increase internet speeds in 2013.

What’s restricting normal internet usage at sea is cost and latency.

“For us, the bottom line is a lot more capacity at a lot lower latency,” said Bill Martin, CIO for Royal Caribbean, talking about the company's new deal with O3b.

O3b will launch eight satellites in 2013, and new technology means data won’t have to travel some 100,000 miles to and from ships, as it does now.

O3b is targeting the other three billion people (hence, O3b) in the world with its service, going after cell phone providers between the 45 degree latitude marks, but is also selling capacity to maritime applications ranging from cruise ships to drilling rigs.

“The latency will reduce by two-thirds,” added Martin. “Which means the latency drops to between 100 and 150 milliseconds, which is what you experience in your home, it’s very close to a DSL line.”

Latency on the O3b Maritime product is less than 150 milliseconds versus over 500 milliseconds on geosynchronous orbit and inclined orbit satellites.

This is because O3b satellites are at an orbital altitude of 8,062 kilometers, versus geosynchronous satellites at 35,000 kilometers.

"O3b has the only medium earth orbit communications satellites that provide both broad coverage of the Earth and the low latency of long haul fiber optic cables. O3b operates in Ka band with a huge amount of available bandwidth to delver very high data rates," explained Steve Blumenthal, SVP product development, O3B. "Lastly, O3b's medium earth orbit combined with smaller lightweight simpler satellite design, allows for a much more affordable service."

Martin said what O3b is doing with its satellite antennas is “extraordinary,” in which O3b will literally have a beam that tracks the ship, switching off between satellites every 45 minutes.

"O3b's satellites have steerable spot beams that can point at a single fixed point on Earth or can follow a moving object. O3b has developed ground station technology to perform seamless handovers from one satellite to another or from one beam to another.," added Blumenthal.

In Miami, Royal Caribbean is still evaluating new pricing plans for passengers, ranging from pay-per-day, to data plans.

“We are going to try a variety of things and see what works,” Martin continued, adding that with the new capacity, the company will find out if it can free up websites that they currently filter, ranging from video and voice chat to social networks.

“Nobody in our industry knows, but we are going to find out.”

“In gross terms, so much more capacity is also more expensive,” he explained, talking to Cruise Industry News prior to the announcement. “But, if you look at it from a per-megabyte basis, it is less. Is it worth it? That’s why we are doing the Oasis first.”

The Oasis was selected because its itinerary is consistent and always in the range of the O3b network, said Martin. There is also enough demand on the megaship to warrant it from a business perspective.

“We think a lot of people in the industry will be watching from the sidelines,” Martin said.

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