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Postcard from a Cruise Ship: Behind the Scenes of a World Record Attempt

It is not every day you get an invitation to witness a world record for the satellite industry. Better yet, it is on a cruise ship going around the Caribbean, and I am there for three days to authenticate record speeds for satellite connectivity on a cruise ship.

On a late Friday evening, I was literally just about to switch my MacBook off for the day when I receive an email from SES inviting me to witness the company’s attempt at breaking a world record for satellite connectivity on board a cruise ship. Now, I have been a writer/journalist for more than 20 years and, while I have had many nice invitations over the years, this one was right up there. Needless to say, being the consummate team player that I am, I managed to miraculously remove things from my schedule so I could enjoy the cruise life (sorry, work) for three days and witness a defining moment for both SES and Carnival.

The world record attempt started off with the aim to achieve bandwidth of 1.5 Gigabits per second, the most ever delivered to a mobile platform. I was indeed lucky enough to witness this world record for satellite connectivity, which eventually peaked at 2.6 Gbps. The record demonstrates that connectivity is no longer a limitation to cruise vacations. Carnival has high hopes for its MedallionNet service which aims to make slow, unreliable internet services a thing of the past. Judging by my own experiences using it, I have to say I was impressed. With the ocean as a backdrop (hard life, I know), I was able to whizz through work emails, surf the internet, and I could have been in any major urban center.

For SES, the work with Carnival has the company reaching a significant inflection point, as it looks to bring fiber-like experiences to customers all over the world. But what does it take to bring more than 2 Gbps to a cruise ship, and why? “There are two sides to that question,” says Steve Collar, the new CEO of SES. “We did it to prove that there are no practical limitations to the bandwidth you can deliver, or the service you can provide, or the guest experience that you can achieve on a mobile platform anywhere on the planet. Secondly, there is MedallionNet, a pervasive and frictionless Wi-Fi which Carnival intends to make available to its global cruise line brands with an initial focus on the Princess Cruises.”

SES is using multiple antenna systems, and has total integration with its fleet with autonomous failover between systems to ensure seamless connectivity. Companies like Intellian have played a key role in providing the systems and technology to help power the program. This reliability is key as SES’ network will support all applications that Carnival would want to implement, including a substantial amount of intelligence in the cloud. “In some ways, the satellite component of what we deliver is the easy piece. The clever stuff is the network and its performance,” Collar adds.

Collar says he thinks this is a step along the company’s journey but that it has been driven by Carnival’s desire to deliver the right kind of guest experience. “Travelers can’t afford to be disconnected from their lives and anyone with kids certainly knows that being disconnected is not an option. It allows guests aboard to share their fantastic experiences with their friends and family in a rich and seamless way. We are doing it by taking responsibility for the end-to-end performance and the end-to-end experience of the applications running over the network. Just delivering the radio frequency portion of the link does not enable you to change the experience of the user on board. Guests need to access their corporate cloud, their photos and their lives. That requires a different skill set and we have now built those skill sets into SES Networks,” he says.

SES took me behind the scenes to see how the service was being provided. Like with all these things, there are many unsung heroes who work long hours to make this a reality. The satellite industry is full of these people, skilled engineers who enable wonderful things. As guests strolled the sun decks, laid by the pool, used the internet to no doubt post on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, I suspect very few of them knew they had access to the fastest internet access ever seen on a cruise ship. They were just taking it for granted; they expected it. And Carnival and SES would no doubt want it that way.

Growing the Market

John Padgett, Carnival’s chief experience officer, is tasked with providing great experiences to customers, that not only will influence them to come back, but to spread the word and tempt other people to cruise. Padgett says he sees Carnival Corporation as the “world’s largest experience company” and does not want them defined by the “cruise” moniker. He says we all now live in an “experience economy.” He sees the competition not as other cruise companies, since the cruise industry only represents only 2 percent of hotel rooms around the globe, but rather other vacation companies. He believes this mean there is “unlimited potential” to grow if Carnival (and other operators) can help create demand.

Its MedallionNet service represents a tipping point in terms of internet services on a cruise ship. But that is only part of the story. Padgett says Carnival tries to consider the guest experience holistically. It doesn’t think about Wi-Fi as a singularly-priced amenity, but instead focuses on the value it delivers to the complete vacation experience. “This enables guests to share their experiences from around the world with their friends and family in real time. They can immerse themselves in their vacation, thus increasing their overall perceived value for that experience,” he says.

Working with SES enabled Carnival to use both Medium and Geostationary Earth Orbit (MEO/GEO) assets, and Padgett described this as crucial. “The game changer is fusing MEO with GEO to create the highest level of reliability possible. Because we’re focused on the guest, we are not concerned about the engineering debate between GEO or MEO because we leverage both constellations simultaneously. The pairing allows us to offer a service enabled by a diversified portfolio of bandwidth to our guests. That gives MedallionNet truly unique speed, capacity and reliability characteristics.” What makes MedallionNet unique according to Padgett is that Carnival has installed individual Wi-Fi access points in every single guest state room. That means every guest has “four bars” at all times — regardless of where they are on the ship. “These high-density access points are fed by a 1.25 Gbps hybrid Ethernet/fiber ship network that maximizes bandwidth distribution everywhere on the ship,” he adds.

One of the key things that Padgett and Carnival are trying to do is change the conversation around connectivity. With a number of options and satellites in a variety of orbits, choosing a satellite operator to partner with is no easy feat. “The fact that the industry continues to debate the alternatives in the absence of a focus on the guest is the fundamental problem and the reason why it’s taken so long to eliminate the guest connectivity barrier. From our perspective, the right answer is to combine all the alternative solutions in a way that capitalizes on the strength of each, and diversifies the challenges each present,” he says.

Padgett admits the company could look to work with LEO satellite operators in the future. “We are leveraging the advantages of MEO and GEO with our services. When LEO becomes a reasonably available solution at scale, we will take the advantages of LEO and diversify away the disadvantages. Our approach combines a pool of bandwidth to maximize speed and reliability,” he says. “Guests do not care about the source of bandwidth. They simply want an excellent connected experience — fast, reliable and affordable.”

Finding solutions has not been an easy process as they look to make these innovations. Just because the work to identify a solution remains invisible to the guest doesn’t mean it is easy. “There have to be innovations to antennas to receive multiple different types of bandwidth. There has to be thoughtful engineering and planning as it relates to the layout of a cruise ship deck, and the placement of the antennas. You have to optimize the consumption and distribution of the bandwidth itself from a connectivity standpoint. You need to have the most advanced modem technology that can handle this. You need a high density high speed on-board distribution network,” he says.

Additionally, Carnival has things like an emerging gaming platform called PlayOcean, which will look to leverage connectivity. “Our focus is the entire experiential ecosystem. From the living room to the state room and everywhere in between and all the way back home. Connectivity is a very, very key element to all of that,” he says.

Experience

I notice more and more that certain words can come to define an interview. For example, when you talk to OneWeb CEO Greg Wyler, he will say the word “mission” on numerous occasions with almost an evangelical zeal. With John Padgett, the word “experience” pervades the whole conversation. Carnival’s ecosystem is built around providing amazing experiences, in an experience-based economy.

As part of this mission, the company has created an Experience Internet of Things (xIOT) platform that involves more than 7,000 sensors on a ship. It has created a wearable called the Ocean Medallion, and the guest connects to Carnival invisibly and persistently based on this platform, which allows crew members to deliver a more personalized experience. “We are doing that in real time at this moment. It launched in November and continues to emerge. But a cruise ship is no longer just a city. We think we have the greatest smart city that exists on the planet piloting on the Regal Princess right now. That is where we are. It is daunting but it will fundamentally change the cruise industry due to the creation of experience intelligence. And best of all, the technology is all invisible and doesn’t complicate the guest experience,” says Padgett.

Padgett calls this the era of democratization of elite-level experiences to everyone. With ubiquitous connectivity and an extensible experience platform, he believes Carnival can deliver personalization at scale. “When you can deliver personalization at scale, it changes the overall value proposition for a guest experience. The simplest way to think about it is that the guests are going to enjoy more of what they love and be distracted less from the complications and hassles associated with any vacation experience. When you do that, you increase the value of their time,” he adds.

World Moving On

For SES, being a part of this evolving ecosystem will be key to its future. Collar says it needs to “keep pushing the envelope and raising the bar.” Even though Collar has been there since the start of the O3b story, there is still much work to be done. “The satellite industry was relatively static for a long time but over the last three to four years, we have seen more changes and disruption than at any time in the last 30 years,” he says. “I would like to think that we have partly been responsible for that because we have helped to change the perception of what is possible over satellite. We are proving that it is possible to provide terrestrial-equivalent services in terms of performances and prices whether for fixed, mobile or government applications and anywhere in the world.”

SES is already working with other cruise ship operators and Collar is excited for the future. “One of the exciting things at the moment at SES Networks is that we see growth in all our major verticals,” he says. “We see fantastic growth in aviation … [and] we saw a really strong uptick in our government business in 2017 which will carry us strongly into 2018 across both our GEO and MEO fleets. But of them all, I think cruise is one of the markets in which we can say we deliver a highly differentiated, world-class service and as a result I expect double digit growth from this market over the next several years.”

Passenger Perspective: What Do They Really Think?

It is breakfast time on the Princess Regal Cruise ship somewhere between the Bahamas and Jamaica. I am talking to an older couple from upstate New York, Ross and Kathy, who are on their first cruise. I ask them what they think of the internet service on the ship and Ross admits they are impressed. They have used it to do a lot of invoicing while they are away, as well as reading content digitally, and they have been really impressed the speed of the service — although Ross thinks Carnival could have done more to make them aware of the service and its capability. However, as first time cruisers, all the extra costs including internet and gratuities could push basic fees up by another $700. So, a thumbs up for the service, but maybe work to be done to explain the value of it.

Steve Collar, CEO of SES.SES

Collar: The New SES Chief

The announcement of Steve Collar becoming the new CEO of SES in some ways was surprising, and in some ways not. As a previous Satellite Executive of the Year nominee, he has been seen as a natural leader for years. Karim Michel Sabbagh’s departure, and maybe the timing of it, did come as a surprise, but Collar always seemed a good fit for the top role within SES. He says his main focus as CEO is to make sure SES delivers on its vision and execute on the path it has set out.

“I am tremendously optimistic for the future of satellite and the future of SES. There is no question that our environment has become more complex, but if we keep delivering for our customers, and putting them at the center of everything that we do, the rest will follow,”he says. “Karim had set out a very bold vision for the business, which I personally found pretty inspiring.”

Collar is a bundle of energy, and it will be interesting to see how his appointment pans out. “I think we have been pretty disruptive both in terms of the High Throughput Satellites (HTS) we have ordered as well as O3b. With the unique combination of both fleets, we are now thinking about what we do terrestrially, how we best apply the latest in software-defined networking technology and how we define digital transformation,” he adds.

While the focus at O3b and SES Networks has been on data, Collar is excited about the potential of the video market for SES. “It is clear that consumer behaviors are changing and we intend to adapt and develop our services in response to the needs of our broadcasters and platform operators with Over-the-Top (OTT) plays as well. I am enormously optimistic about the future and the important role that satellite plays in both networks and in the distribution of video,” he concludes. VS