Connectivity

As cruise-ship internet improves, it’s a siren song for a new kind of passenger

Increased speed and reliability cater to travelers who can work from anywhere.
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Emily Parsons

4 min read

When Jenny Hunnicutt first heard about Royal Caribbean’s Ultimate World Cruise, she had one question: Is internet included?

The 34-year-old, who holds a doctorate in health and rehab sciences, already ran her research writing and consulting business from an RV alongside her husband Kristian—also an entrepreneur. As long as they could get online reliably and affordably, would moving the whole operation to sea for nine months really be so different?

The arrangement offered a lot of appeal: With their flexible schedules, they could visit every continent and World Wonder while working intermittently from the ship. They decided to take the plunge. Roughly six months in, Hunnicutt says it’s been smooth sailing.

“I couldn’t believe how good the internet was onboard. Like the fact that I could—I was—livestreaming on TikTok in Antarctica,” said Hunnicutt, who’s been documenting her travels from the handle @drjennytravels. “I just go back to the word ‘game changer.’ It really, really is that.”

Hunnicutt isn’t the only one trading a standard WFH setup for a floating office, an exchange in which connectivity is key. In March, Virgin Voyages announced it would sell summer cruise passes that sought to entice remote employees with a “work from helm” experience; other lines have similar offerings.

According to Stewart Chiron, a travel expert who dishes advice under the moniker The Cruise Guy, improvements in speeds and pricing for at-sea internet coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, when many people began working remotely and were also itching to get away. These dynamics led to an explosion of interest in cruising, particularly from a younger audience.

“People were able to use the ship’s wi-fi. They were able to use their cell phones. And they were able to stay connected,” he said. “Why be chained to a desk or stuck in an office when you could be out traveling the world?”

The newest generation of satellite internet is driving improvements on the technology side, Chiron told Tech Brew. As we previously reported, low-Earth orbit satellite constellations operated by companies like Starlink have the potential to offer higher speeds and more reliable broadband than their predecessors that orbit higher above Earth. The cruise industry is embracing the shift.

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“In all the cruise lines now, we’ve seen Starlink explode in popularity,” Chiron said.

He noted that “the cruise lines are really serious about connectivity” because their customers are, whether it’s to support their businesses or share their vacations in real time.

But wi-fi access is only part of the connectivity puzzle at sea. Many passengers prefer to keep using their regular cell phone service by adding a flat-rate day pass that enables mobile roaming, said Pramod Arora, president and CEO of Wireless Maritime Services. The company negotiates roaming agreements with nearly 400 carriers so that passengers can continue receiving a mobile signal through cell sites that WMS operates on board.

As prices fall for both wi-fi and mobile service at sea, Arora said travelers have more options for staying connected.

“As the cost of bandwidth has come down, the capacity has gone up. It has made it easier for folks to connect and use high-bandwidth applications,” he said. “Wi-fi pricing has come down on cruise ships, and so has cellular roaming pricing…Those are the two things that make a difference when people make a decision to connect.”

For Hunnicutt, learning that Royal Caribbean would offer Starlink on board bolstered her confidence that she could make a working vacation work for her. That’s because she already uses the SpaceX subsidiary to provide wi-fi in her RV.

“We were very excited to hear that they were converting the ship’s internet to Starlink because we had just had really great experiences with it,” she said.

The connection is still working swimmingly, if Hunnicutt’s TikTok account is any indication. On Sunday, she posted a video of herself doing handstands on the Royal Caribbean ship and in a plaza in France. In an earlier video, she explained that she wouldn’t be posting while the ship traveled around China because of internet licensing issues, but she gushed about her ability to post from other remote locations.

“If you’ve cruised before, you know that the internet has not always been great,” she said in that video.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.