SATCOM SOLUTIONS: Cruising in the Cloud

July 10, 2019

Turning a necessary cost center into a revenue stream is the new normal for savvy and successful cruise operators.

As the flourishing expedition cruise market takes passengers on innovative itineraries to remote and untouched destinations, these well heeled guests want something else at the same time: a 24/7 quality internet connection. If Marlink gets its way, that sort of communications service will soon be the rule, and not the exception.

In April, Marlink revealed that the expedition cruise market is in full-on growth mode in terms of demand for connectivity in the most remote corners of the planet. As a satellite service provider and communications partner for more than a few luxury and adventure cruise ships and fleets, Marlink says that it is today contracting twice the satellite capacity specifically for the expedition sector as it was just 12 months ago and is now regularly providing megabit connectivity on a truly global scale. Marlink customers in the sector include Hapag-Lloyd Cruises as well as French luxury cruise specialist PONANT.

The expedition cruise vessel sector has been gaining pace over the last five or so years, driven by a market that wants to see and do new things on holiday. On that bucket list for many is the far north, where the reduction in sea ice is creating new opportunities. For its part, Marlink has kept pace with demand and in some cases enabled expedition vessels to go further afield by opening up new areas of coverage, for instance in the North West Passage, which is becoming quite a popular route. Providing that coverage and delivering it in an affordable package is another thing altogether.

Tommy Konkol Dybvad, Director Cruise and Ferry at Marlink told MLPro, “We work closely with all major satellite network operators to ensure that we can deliver the highest quality of service in cost-effective packages for all customers. The challenges to ensure that guests can connect in remote areas on an expedition cruise are not easy to overcome compared to the traditional cruise markets closer to equator, however our customers [the cruise lines] know that they must deliver connectivity on board for passengers who expect to be connected at all times.

The 100% increase in capacity required to keep guests, crew and company connected as far afield as the Arctic and Antarctic is due to the surge in popularity of expedition cruising.

Marlink customers in the sector include Hapag-Lloyd Cruises fleet which is operating in remote locations using Marlink VSAT. New ‘expedition class’ ships, HANSEATIC nature and HANSEATIC inspiration, due to be delivered this year and HANSEATIC due in 2021, will have the same high-level connectivity for guests and crew. Marlink also renewed its contract to deliver multi-band services to French luxury cruise specialist PONANT late in 2017, a deal that included provision for four new PONANT Explorers yachts – Le Champlain and Le Laperouse, which joined the fleet in 2018, and Le Bougainville and Le Dumont-d’Urville, which will enter service in 2019. Another customer is MSC Cruises.

All In: Low Cost, High Quality
The practice of providing very low cost for passengers (on expedition ships, it is likely to be an all-in situation) is a remarkable development, and one which most will be able to afford.

Tommy Konkol Dybvad explained, “The idea that lower-cost connectivity would be popular is not ground-breaking of course. Cruising isn’t cheap so high bills for posting photos of your holiday to social media are particularly unwelcome. Guest satisfaction is any cruise company’s top priority and improvements in cost and quality of the connectivity on board is very important aspect. As an added driver, pictures and videos of a cruise on Facebook or Instagram are new marketing channels for a cruise company.”

It is the ability to throttle bandwidth per voyage and/or switch capacity from vessel to vessel, depending on demand for a particular voyage that is the key to keeping costs down and service high. This must involve close collaboration with the customer; MSC in this case. “We provide MSC Cruises with a cloud of bandwidth concept, where the huge amount of capacity they have can be distributed according to demand around the fleet. We ensure that capacity is available for vessels when and where it is needed, but our space segment team works at least 18 months ahead with access to future customer itineraries to support planning. Of course, the service can be reactive as well, should a short notice change be applied to a vessel’s routine for instance.”

A very straightforward process handled by a simple script defines all available connectivity carriers. As soon as the primary system becomes unavailable, the script is defined to automatically jump to alternative carriers defined in a prioritized way to ensure least cost with highest throughout and lowest latency at any given time.

“Delivering global availability and reliability can really only be achieved through a multi-band and multi-orbital approach. Marlink customers essentially don’t need to choose a specific single service as we deliver their bandwidth using the best satellite networks for their needs,” says Tommy Konkol Dybvad.

The availability of relatively low cost bandwidth to cruise passengers is a great selling point for MSC, but it also benefits that operator in so many ways. These include (a.) the partial funding of business Internet/satellite coverage costs, (b.) providing more for less to cruise customers, and (c.) the transfer (and leveraging) of marketing costs through social media goodwill from happy cruising customers.

“It's essentially a closed-loop,” explained Tommy Konkol Dybvad, who adds, “Hitting the right price point and service quality delivers more consumers on board, and this revenue goes towards funding the high levels of capacity that a cruise ship needs. With a continuous revenue stream, cruise companies can continually improve the connectivity services they offer, providing an even more attractive offering which will attract even more users willing to pay for the experience.”

In the end, Marlink helps to turn what has been historically an expensive cost center into a revenue stream that can defray at least a portion of these costs, while allowing passengers to do the work of (and augment) marketing through social media at the same time.

The Full Package: Advantage Marlink
Network quality is key to meeting the demanding requirements of expedition cruising and while Marlink deploys state-of-the-art on-board systems and makes capacity available globally, it also focuses development efforts on ensuring that customers have improved support tools to optimize their communication services. In parallel, Marlink is also committed to ensuring its clients can minimize the risk of cyber-attack through inherent security at the network level and the fully integrated ship and shore-based Cyber Guard portfolio, offering harmonized solutions for detection, protection and recovery.

With the cruise market in focus, the company has also introduced several new capabilities that can be accessed via an online portal, including an onboard internet Wi-Fi landing site or captive portal with capabilities to connect APIs to the clients own customized cruise management systems for more automated processes. This in turn reduces manual labor. The new support tool also features a dashboard which provides information on best line of sight between the vessel and available satellites, which is especially relevant close to the poles with low elevation where obstructions such as icebergs or cliffs could affect link availability, and therefore the quality of service that guests experience.

The Marlink cruise offering is truly a ‘win-win-win’ situation; convenient and affordable for guests, easy to administer for cruise lines on board, and, of course, it represents another promising line of business for this innovative company. And now, no matter where the cruise lines go next, they’ll always be cruising safely in the cloud.

This article first appeared in the MAY/JUNE 2019 edition of Maritime Logistics Professional magazine.

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