It is not nearly as romantic as a message in a bottle, but electronic mail is certainly a much faster and more efficient way to communicate with friends and family back on shore from a ship at sea. For example, passengers on the Norwegian Sky, the first ship to offer 24-hour Internet access to passengers, were able to write home instantly when the ship, on one of its first voyages, ran aground in Canada last month.
This inauspicious beginning for this new era of floating e-mail access notwithstanding, nearly every other major cruise line is also going full speed ahead to equip its ships with Internet-connected computers.
Shipboard Internet communications will not be ubiquitous for several years, in part because it is expensive and complicated to rewire existing ships, and in part because the companies want to make sure that their systems are impervious to such potential Internet problems as hackers, software viruses and pornography. But within a few years, cruise industry executives say, Internet access will be as common as satellite telephone access is today. E-mail aboard cruise ships is not new, but until 1997 it was exclusively for the crew. (If passengers feel cut off from loved ones during a one-week cruise, imagine how the crews feel when they are at sea for six to eight months at a time.) Crystal Cruises, the first line to offer a broad array of computer classes at sea, started the trend in 1997 by allowing computer users to send and receive e-mail at a few times of the day.
As passengers grew more accustomed to having Internet access at home, they began asking for full-time Internet access at sea as well. Cruise passengers want to track and trade stocks on line. Or, they have become attached to the instant gratification of e-mail, which allows them to stay in touch with friends and family.
Internet access from a ship at sea is accomplished via satellite, just as ship-to-shore (and shore-to-ship) telephone calls are made. A laptop or decktop computer aboard the ship is connected to a local network that connects to a satellite transceiver dish. The dish is pointed precisely at a communications satellite, which is no trivial feat given the constant movement of the ship. The satellite in turn relays the digital information to ground stations called teleports, which in turn are connected to the backbone of the Internet.
The streams of digital bits going to and from the ship can take many different forms, including e-mail, stock quotes and news headlines, video clips, still pictures, electronic-commerce orders and even voice.
Voice is one of the more intriguing applications for maritime Internet services. One principal advantage of Internet-based voice calls over conventional land lines is cost, and the same is true for voice calls made via Internet at sea. But while using voice over the Internet will save the cruise lines a lot of money, it is unclear whether those savings will be passed on to passengers.
Making a satellite phone call typically costs $10 a minute or more, or at least $600 an hour. The new Internet-enabled ships are expected to charge about $30 an hour, or 50 cents a minute, for surfing.
The appeal of instant e-mail is obvious, but the cruise companies do not appear to be overly concerned that e-mail will cut into their hugely profitable satellite phone business. As one Norwegian Cruise Line official noted, passengers often use the phone service to ask friends and relatives for their e-mail addresses, or to call for help with a forgotten password.
In the digital world, there is no practical difference between sending a block of text, a picture, a fax document or a voice file. Bits are bits. But to maximize their profits, the cruise ships typically impose a surcharge depending on the type of message being sent.
In terms of revenue potential for the cruise line operators, "It's like Disneyland with the doors closed," said Glenn Farrington, chief executive officer and president of Digital Seas International, the company that supplied Internet access to Norwegian Cruise Lines. Digital Seas is also to be the Internet service provider to a number of other cruise line companies.
For passengers who do not already have a Web-based e-mail account like those offered by America Online or Microsoft Hotmail and who as a result must use the ship's Cruise Mail service, each piece of e-mail sent costs an additional $5.95, and each video message, consisting of 15 to 20 seconds of video, costs $9.95.
Passengers can receive e-mail, too. If they do not already have an Internet e-mail account, they will be assigned one when they buy their cruise passage, so that they can give it to friends, family and colleagues.
The same 50-cent-a-minute fee applies to Norwegian Sky passengers connecting to the Internet from their cabins using their own laptops. At least one ship plans to rent laptops for $30 a day.
There are also surcharges for non-Internet applications. Each time the passenger uses a word processing or spreadsheet program, the ship charges $2.95. Each time the passenger plays a computer game like Tiger Woods Golf or You Don't Know Jack, the fee is $3.95.
Although the technologies are most likely to be used initially for simple communications like electronic mail, they could also be used for more intensive applications like video conferencing and electronic white boards for business meetings. Norwegian and other lines say they will eventually offer passengers the ability to play computer games against passengers on other ships.
Even cruise lines wonder what would compel a passenger to book a voyage and then spend hours cloistered in a cabin surfing the Internet or competing in Quake death matches against passengers on a rival cruise ship.
Whatever concerns the cruise industry had that Internet access might not be popular vanished within hours of the Norwegian Sky's maiden voyage. The ship has lots of blond wood, a number of dining spots including a Chinese-Italian restaurant called Ciao-Chow, a cigar bar and a sizable health club. But the computers were a big draw.
"People were three deep at the computer terminals in the Internet Cafe on the Sky," Farrington said. The interest in Internet access does not evaporate when the stock markets close. "There's a really interesting group of users who show up at 2 or 3 in the morning, when their spouses are asleep," he said. (The grounding Sept. 24 forced the evacuation of 1,924 passengers and 787 crew members. The ship was scheduled to go into dry dock last Wednesday in Quebec City to assess the damage; at least one cruise had been canceled.) "I rue the day that we finally put telephones in the cabins," said Tim Gallagher, vice president of public relations at Carnival Cruise Lines in Miami, wistfully recalling when he could be aboard a ship and the office could not reach him. "I'm also not one who wants to go see a movie on board. But my taste is not everybody else's taste." "Ships have evolved," Gallagher said. "They have become floating resorts. Our guests expect all the luxuries and amenities they find in first-class resorts, and that includes instant access to communications." Several Carnival ships now have Apple iMacs in children's game areas; most already have Internet connections for use by the crew. Internet access for passengers will be added within a year, Gallagher said.