When I first started cruising back in 1998, there were two ways for passengers to keep in touch with the outside world: send a telex, or use the stateroom telephone. Typically, passengers tended to use neither. One minute of phone time was the equivalent cost of a martini, and Telex wasn’t practical for most people. The first proper “internet cafe” onboard a cruise ship didn’t make its first appearance until 1999, when Norwegian Cruise Line featured one aboard the then-new Norwegian Sky.

Rare prior to 1999, shipboard internet centers - and wireless internet access - are available on nearly every cruise ship in the world. So why do guests hate it so much? Shown here is the FunHub internet cafe aboard Carnival Breeze. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Rare prior to 1999, shipboard internet centers – and wireless internet access – are available on nearly every cruise ship in the world. So why do guests hate it so much? Shown here is the FunHub internet cafe aboard Carnival Breeze. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

That was just 15 years ago. Today, people can keep in touch over email, Facebook, and just about every other form of communication via the internet. And yet, shipboard internet access – from the cost to the relatively slow speed – is one of the largest and most enduring complaints among cruise ship passengers. I’ve seen analysis of some of those ‘end-of-cruise surveys’ that passengers fill out; believe it or not, the internet trumps nearly every other facet of operations in terms of complaints.

It’s not just specific to one particular voyage. Take a peek at the boards on CruiseCritic, and you’ll see people complaining bitterly about the cost of onboard internet, which can run into the hundreds of dollars on a typical weeklong voyage depending on how much time you want to spend online.

Few passengers, however, understand why that internet is so expensive.

That's Odd: fast-moving fog sweeps up and over the superstructure of the Zuiderdam while docked in Juneau. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Satellite communications domes are seen aboard Holland America Line’s Zuiderdam while docked in Juneau. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

In order to access the internet onboard a cruise ship, guests have to do so via satellites. There’s no high-speed fibre-optic uplink at sea – just satellites. And if you spend some time on the upper deck of your cruise ship, you can see those satellite domes looking like oversized golf balls, ready to be tee’d up.

MTN Satellite Communications is one of the largest providers of shipboard onboard internet. Chances are, if you look up at those satellite domes, you’ll see the company’s blue initials decaled on the side. They were the first company to place a satellite aboard a cruise ship (in 1991), and they continue to develop new satellite technology to this day.

MS Midnatsol is beautifully decorated on the inside, with plenty of floor-to-ceiling windows. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One of the spectacular lounges aboard Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol. The Norwegian cruise/ferry company is one of the few lines in the world to offer complimentary Wi-Fi internet access. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

So why isn’t internet access free for all passengers? Consider this: most new megaships carry between three and five thousand passengers – and another 1,400 or so crewmembers. And everyone wants to be online. Many cruise line employees – particularly staff like F&B Directors, Cruise Directors, Hotel Directors, Guest Relations Managers, and nautical Officers, need access to the internet to effectively manage their ship.

Satellite internet access is very expensive. The domes cost a lot of money to install and maintain, but the fees imposed by cruise lines aren’t so much to offset the costs (though that is a key factor). Instead, much like a specialty restaurant, the fee for the internet is to limit access to those who need the service, rather than those who want it casually.

The combined Library and Internet Cafe aboard the Silver Spirit offers numerous ways to relax - and catch up. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

The combined Library and Internet Cafe aboard Silversea’s Silver Spirit offers numerous ways to relax – and catch up. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Sure, cruise lines could provide it free-of-charge, but then everyone would have a different complaint: no bandwidth. With three thousand-plus people trying to use YouTube and FaceTime, passengers would be left with sites that don’t load and links that never go anywhere. It’s all about the bandwidth.

Of course, some lines do offer complimentary onboard internet access. Many river cruise lines, for example, charge nothing for their onboard internet. But it is accessed via standard cellular networks, not satellite ones, and can be disrupted by everything from locks and mountains to other ships and stiff breezes. Well, maybe not that last one…but it’s on-again, off-again nature will make you think that.

Of course, if you don't have to be online, this is always an option! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Of course, if you don’t have to be online, this is always an option! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Personally, I have less of an issue with cruise lines charging for internet access than I do with land-based hotels. Charging upwards of $20 a day at a land-locked Hilton is absurd, in my view, when a Quality Inn or Best Western will offer it up for free. But don’t kid yourself: hotels have to invest – and continually re-invest – in internet access like never before. Bandwidth has to be continually upgraded, and extending Wi-Fi hotspots across large hotels constructed before internet was popular can be prohibitively expensive.

Instead of griping about the cost of the internet, ask yourself: do you really need to be online? You’re on vacation! If you spend your entire time online…were you ever really away?

 

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