According to Andy Schwalb, director of IT, Virgin Voyages’ goal has been to remove the connectivity barrier for its Sailors when it comes to internet access aboard. “What was clear from consumer research was that customers did not want to feel disconnected while onboard,” he said to Cruise Industry News.
Working closely with SES, the new cruise line was able to take advantage of the company’s MEO (medium earth orbit) satellites. “The SES has beams that can track the ship. “You end up with 500 to 700 megabits or more of bandwidth at low latency, so the experience on the ships is almost as good as at home,” he explained, adding that the company sought out the largest and fastest available beams. All Sailors (guests) receive free internet access as part of Virgin’s pricing model. “We are removing barriers not only for sailors but also for our crew.” “We treat our crew better than anyone else in the industry and tell them to stay connected with their families,” Schwalb said.
Bonding two SES satellite beams together to get more bandwidth is one of the innovations at Virgin this summer on the Valiant Lady. “We’re testing this new piece of software in their cloud that allows us to connect two beams to one ship to get enough capacity,” Schwalb explained. It doesn’t stop there, as the company is also testing a 5G network connection on the new ship. Using a new antenna, the goal is to increase capacity or divert traffic away from satellite beams and into local 5G networks near the coast or while in port.
“We are currently the only cruise ship with a 5G system that has functions in it to offload traffic to it when we are in cell range, which is limited to being off the coast or in a port,” Schwalb said. “We’re looking at a variety of options, including Starlink.” While it is not intended for use on a ship, we will begin a trial in Europe soon.” According to Schwalb, the demand for network capabilities on cruise ships will “never go in any other direction but straight up.” “Other cruise lines charge for it, which limits the number of people who can go on it.” Because it is free with Virgin, everyone uses it all the time. “I’m looking for the biggest and best we can get.” Every time. We have plans for gigabit connections in the future, so we’ll take it.”