With summer approaching, the race between cruise lines in attracting passengers on their sunny decks is in full swing.

Cruising continues to be a popular vacation choice for many, with demand increasing by 20% between 2011 and 2016 particularly from the US, China, Germany, the UK and Australia, according to a report by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

But the demographics of those who are taking new interest in cruising are fast changing as well. The same report found that 33% of those surveyed have a household income of less than $80,000, while river and small ship cruising continues to gain traction specifically among millennials.

This, along with the expectation that 2018 will bring “a rise in traveller-friendly on board technologies that enhance travel experiences”, means it is easy to assume that customers now expect a reliable WiFi connection while on board, at an affordable price – or even for free.

On-board connectivity has been notoriously difficult until now. At sea, the Internet is provided mainly by way of satellites, and coverage so far has been patchy, slow, expensive, and a mainly a luxury associated with premium packages.

But new developments in high throughput satellites and VSAT hardware are bringing increasing broadband capabilities to vessels. SES Networks, one of the primary providers of medium-orbit fleet of satellites for clients such as Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises, recently announced the launch of four new satellites to their existing fleet of 12, ready to begin operation in May.

The launch is in response to what SES chief technology officer Martin Halliwell called a growing demand for high-performance bandwidth and networks, particularly in the cruise sector.

Record breaking speeds

In March this year, Carnival Corporation beat the maritime bandwidth record with its MedallionNet connectivity service, in use on its brand Princess Cruises’ Regal Princess.

Using VSAT technology, internet speeds reached 2.15 Gbps at the end of February, breaking the previous limit of just over 500 Mbps on MSC Cruises’ new build MSC Seaside. The average speed for cruise ships is around 10 to 20 Mbps per ship, according to Carnival.

Now, the brand has partnered with SES Networks to introduce 1.5 Gbps on board the Princess Cays, allowing guests to stream Netflix or Hulu – luxuries once only available on land.

Across the entire fleet, guests can connect to Carnival’s MedallionNet by purchasing one of its three plans (Social, Value and Premium) either before the cruise or on board.

When it comes to free WiFi, Reza Rasoulian, vice president of global connectivity at Carnival Cruise Line, said the possibility is not yet on the cards – customers of the Carnival brand would have to wait anywhere between five to ten years before they can hope to surf the net for free on holiday, Rasoulian said.

The “fastest internet at sea”

Royal Caribbean passengers are invited to connect to Voom, which is what the liner calls its on-board internet service. Unlike traditional internet options at sea, Voom uses a different kind of satellite technology to provide much faster connectivity. Voom comes in two packages (Surf and Surf & Stream), and the brand often offers discounts if they are bought in advance.

It offers guests the ability to stream music and movies, upload pictures, use FaceTime or Skype, check emails, surf the web and stay connected with work via VPN.

After testing its bandwidth on Harmony of the Seas, Cruise Critic said it is “fast and reliable, and rivals speeds on land”.

The line’s new ship Symphony of the Seas, launched in April 2018, takes the crown as the world’s biggest cruise ship by volume and passengers and the company claims it is equipped with the “fastest internet at sea”.

The free WiFi trend on luxury cruises

Silversea Cruises recently jumped on the gravy train and started offering free unlimited WiFi to all guests throughout its fleet from April.

For the past two years, guests could enjoy only one hour of free unlimited WiFi per day. With the announcement, Silversea now joins Crystal Cruises, which first introduced free unlimited WiFi on its fleet in April 2017.

“We know how important it is to catch up on emails or share photos on social media while on vacation,” said Silversea’s chief marketing officer Barbara Muckermann in a press release. “Now, with free unlimited WiFi in all suites, our guests can stay as connected as they like while they voyage to the most fascinating places on Earth.”

However, one noteworthy aspect to take into account is these liners’ size and capacity. While Carnival and Royal Caribbean sail ships with a capacity of between 5,000 to 6,000 passenger and more, the smaller luxury cruises can only accommodate under 600 guests at one time, meaning that offering free internet is far easier.

One of Silversea’s up and coming rivals, Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection, also announced it will include complimentary WiFi when it launches.

Surfing Oceania Cruises’s Wavenet

In March culinary and destination-focused line Oceania Cruises announced the fleet-wide launch of its new Wavenet high-speed internet, which will allow travellers to do exactly what they do at home: stream, share, upload and communicate on a variety of platforms and apps.

Passengers will be able to upload and download large files ‘in a snap’, the company promised, and they can even livestream, Facetime and Skype with friends and family back home.

Free and unlimited Wavenet service are included for all stateroom and suite categories on all sailings starting April, while a streaming upgrade called Wavenet Prime is available for $9.99 per day for those who wish to stream movies, music or videos.

Disney’s data plans

Disney Cruise Line offers a variety of options to the many pay-per-minute packages ubiquitous with other lines: passengers can pay only for the data they use, so the choice of how much content they consume (from checking their email to streaming an entire movie) is in their hands.

Alternatively, Disney offers the possibility to use its Navigator App, which includes the latest cruise information directly while on the ship, as well as an in-built chat feature to keep in touch with other passengers.