Jan 02, 2024

Starlink a Musk

Space-age communications tech is making high-data activities aboard a cruise ship, like video streaming, gaming, even just simple web browsing or video calls back home possible, without the frustration of drop-outs.

And it's being made possible today by a brand you’ll start to hear a lot more of — Starlink.

Cruise lines big and small are increasingly deploying Starlink's technology for vastly improved connectivity at sea. It promises faster, more reliable and higher-capacity broadband internet at sea.

Starlink is by Elon Musk's SpaceX. The company claims its "high-speed, low-latency service is made possible via the world's largest constellation of highly advanced satellites operating in a low orbit around the Earth".

Basically, it means that because its satellites orbit much closer to Earth at about 550km, the round-trip data time between user and satellite, or latency, is much lower so speeds and reliability are vastly improved.

On its latest Starlink mission two weeks ago it launched 22 second-generation Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) on its reusable rocket, Falcon 9, from Cape Canaveral.

So, what does all this mean for the average cruiser? Firstly, it doesn't mean blanket reliability everywhere. But even in places not yet covered, such as parts of South America and Africa, there will be coverage either later this year, in 2024 or pending regulatory approval as in India, according to SpaceX.

But it does mean extended LEO coverage to support high-speed and reliable internet on land and oceans across the globe where Starlink has government approval. This includes Australia and New Zealand, and importantly remote areas like the Kimberley.

Coral Expeditions, which is running expedition cruises during the current Kimberley season, has combined the Starlink network with 4G connectivity on its fleet of three small ships. It's taken several months to replace antennas and networking equipment, which was completed in April, and then tested across the fleet in areas it sails.

"I am pleased to report this latest investment that allows us to meet changing guest expectations of broadband access everywhere," group general manager Mark Fifield says. "Our ships are reporting access speeds faster than our office in Cairns."

Coral Expeditions offers access to standard wi-fi as part of the fare with package upgrades for higher bandwidth available to buy.

Carnival Corporation's Holland America Line has reported positive guest and crew feedback from its first month operating with Starlink on its ship Koningsdam, in Alaska, where weather interference and blockages from structures and mountains could have otherwise caused connection problems.

"While it's early in our usage . . . we’re hearing from guests that emails and social media are performing well, and team members tell us that internet calls home to loved ones are much stronger. That's a connection that means a lot," Kathleen Erickson, HAL's vice-president of technology, says.

HAL president Gus Antorcha says: "Added bandwidth means our guests can share the joys of exploring Alaska in real time and our team can stay in touch with their loved ones back home."

Carnival says the rollout on its respective fleets would continue and expects the majority of its fleets to be kitted-up by the end of the year. It too will include some level of Starlink service in its fares.

Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and their respective cruise line brands have invested in Starlink technology. NCLH says the line intends to roll out the technology across its entire fleet in stages.

NCLH chief Harry Sommer says: "Ensuring that this technology meets our high standards of excellence for our guests is incredibly important to us, which is why we are introducing this cutting-edge technology across our fleet in a phased manner."

The extra bandwidth will also provide more flexibility to offer onboard services and features for passengers that require the internet, Norwegian says.

Starlink will be installed on all Royal Caribbean Group ships, including Celebrity Cruises and Silversea, with the company saying it will "improve and enable more high-bandwidth activities like video streaming and video calls".

The service is already live on all 26 Royal Caribbean International ships and it says Starlink package prices will vary but there’ll be "significant discounts" for pre-cruise bookings.

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