Broadband Demand Hits The High Seas

Cruise ship operators Royal Caribbean and Carnival are exploring new ways to provide on-board Internet access, highlighting advances in remote connectivity.

but telecom companies in the Cook Islands, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, and South Sudan are among its early customers. Wyler remains an O3b shareholder but has since moved on to work briefly on Google's satellite ideas and most recently is rumored to be working with SpaceX's Elon Musk. More on that connection a bit later.

Providing cruise ship guests with Netflix and Facebook might fall short of O3b's higher calling, but CEO Steve Collar sees no reason not to serve customers such as cruise ship and energy companies. It's still committed to extended connectivity to people in emerging markets, but "O3b was never intended to be a charity," Collar says.

O3b recently signed its first oil and gas customers, which need Internet access on drilling platforms far offshore. The US and a couple of other governments are testing the company's service for possible naval and other uses. Although no other company offers quite what O3b does today, Collar says, "it's highly likely others will do what we're doing" with smaller, medium-orbit satellites.

Perhaps it will be someone like Elon Musk, the CEO and founder of electric car maker Tesla and CEO and founder of SpaceX, which NASA contracted to shuttle US astronauts to the International Space Station. Musk confirmed via Twitter this month that SpaceX plans to use micro-satellites to deliver "unfettered" Internet access "at very low cost." The Wall Street Journal originally broke the news, citing unnamed sources who described SpaceX as exploring the idea of launching as many as 700 small satellites, weighing less than 250 pounds each, in order to provide Internet access. Musk via Twitter described the effort as "in the early stages," with an announcement coming in two to three months. The Journal said Musk is working with Wyler, O3b's founder, who left Google's satellite project early this fall to start WorldVu Satellites.

Google and Facebook are two other tech companies to watch in this remote Internet access market. Google earlier this year bought Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drones that might be capable of delivering Internet access. Facebook bought its own solar-powered drone maker, Ascenta, this year. Google also has a high-profile research effort, Google Loon (, to test low-orbiting balloons for providing Internet access.

Carnival's hybrid bet
Carnival Cruise CIO Ramon Millan points to those emerging options as a reason Carnival's hybrid approach makes strategic sense. The company announced this month that it has knitted together a hybrid network of in-port WiFi, long-range Wi-Fi beamed to ships less than 40 miles offshore, and satellite access for ships far at sea.

The difficult part about creating that network was writing algorithms that consider not just technical factors, but also business rules such as knowing which other of the 101 Carnival-operated ships in the area are sharing satellite or other resources. The algorithms also must consider the ship's route so that it's choosing the right access option for the next hour, not just this moment.

By developing algorithms to switch among Internet access modes, Millan says, the company is positioned to bring in new technologies as they emerge. "What is good now is not going to be the best a month from now or two months from now," he says. "Having the flexibility to adopt technologies when they're available is great… as opposed to being stuck with one technology only for many years." Before this hybrid approach, Carnival relied almost entirely on satellites.

Carnival isn't changing its pricing model, as it continues to sell Internet access on a per-minute basis -- around 75 cents a minute, with discounts for bulk minutes. Connectivity quality will vary. Millan says the in-port and near-shore options will provide a better Internet experience for guests than today's satellite option. In mid-ocean, the latency of its satellite-based Internet access will continue to make big downloads like video more choppy. Millan says the company is working to communicate with guests where the ships have their best connectivity and where they might have problems.

Why not tap O3b's lower-orbit satellites? Millan says it had talks with O3b, but O3b couldn't serve all of Carnival's ships across all geographies, and the company wanted a service for its entire fleet. Millan has talked with Google about its Internet access balloon trials, and is in talks with satellite companies about ways that they're investing in software to reduce latency and interference.

This high seas broadband chase reveals something about our always-on world: Even as we become more dependent on Internet connectivity, wireless networks still fail, are sub-par, or don't exist in many places. As companies consider the Internet of Things, connecting everything from railroad switches to gas wells to airplanes to the Internet for continuous monitoring, these network shortcomings become more glaring. Economic development depends on Internet connectivity, a big reason creative companies such as Google, Facebook, and SpaceX are exploring alternative technologies to deliver remote broadband.

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Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer