Monday, July 19, 2004

Setting sail without losing touch

By John Pain
The Associated Press

MIAMI - Pam Lome loves sitting on the deck when she's on a cruise, the shoreline shrinking on the horizon as the ship pulls out to sea. It's relaxing to know that, at least for a short time, she's leaving her everyday troubles behind.

"It's supposed to be a way to get away from it all," said Lome, a 45-year-old former travel agent from Buffalo Grove, Ill.

But with a new service the industry is beginning to embrace, the tranquility many passengers cherish on cruises may be shattered by the cacophony of ringing cell phones. The service makes regular mobile phones work even when communications towers are miles of ocean away.

It's just the latest way technology is changing cruise vacations, which now offer Internet access, pay-per-view television and digital music libraries.

To Beth Abrams, the more communications technology onboard, the better.

Abrams, a 40-year-old first-grade teacher from Freehold, N.J., recently traveled on the Norwegian Dawn from New York down the East Coast. The ship was close enough to shore to reach Nextel phone's network, so she could stay in touch.

"I need it. My husband's self-employed. He needs to be in contact on a daily basis. We have someone taking care of our home that we need to talk to. We have pets at home that we need to check up on," she said while the ship was docked in Miami.

In the past, "we would just be out of contact for a week and hope for the best," she said.

But what about passengers like Lome who want to enjoy a relaxing getaway?

"I don't want to be on deck by the pool getting some sun and listening to someone talk about their stock options," she said.

Some cruise executives don't think it will be a big deal.

"I think you should offer as many amenities as you can and if you find that the bulk of your passengers don't want it, you'll hear about it pretty quickly," said Colin Veitch, head of Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., which is exploring the technology.

"Are you going to be annoyed by sitting next to the pool and having somebody talking on their cell phone? Probably not any more annoyed than just having a noisy person next to you," Veitch said. "People will just get used to it."

Carnival Corp. & PLC, the world's largest cruise company, is testing cell phone service on its Costa Cruises line in Europe and plans to eventually install the equipment on more ships, said Trevor Brydges, Carnival's supervisor of shipboard technology.

Carnival's main rival, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., just began offering the service on the Island Escape, a ship it operates on the Mediterranean through a joint venture. The line is considering adding it to other ships, too.

AT&T Wireless Services Inc. and Maritime Telecommunications Network Inc. created the system used on the Island Escape. Wireless equipment on the ship relays calls to satellite transmitters, which then beam the signals to shore.

Charges for cruise cell calls appear on the user's wireless bill at home. The service is currently available only for phones on the GSM network standard.

Prices for U.S.-based cruises haven't been set yet, but they could be similar to rates on European cruises, where the price per minute can be about $1.69, roughly the same as a roaming call, AT&T Wireless spokeswoman Rochelle Cohen said. In comparison, satellite phone calls can cost $6 to $8 a minute.

The cell phone signals piggyback on systems that transmit Internet data to cruise ships via satellite. Since Internet service was introduced about five years ago, it has grown to be used by about 15 percent of passengers, industry officials said.

George Hall, 54, is a big fan of onboard e-mail. He was vacationing on the Dawn last year when the heating system at his home in New York's Hudson Valley malfunctioned, cranking the temperature to 95 degrees.

Hall's house-sitter contacted him by e-mail. Together they diagnosed the problem and arranged to get it repaired before Hall's cruise ended. The cost for keeping in touch by e-mail was about 40 cents a minute, a common figure for the service.

Internet service generally comes to cruise passengers at 128 to 256 kilobits per second, faster than dial-up but below broadband connections such as DSL and cable modems.

Passengers can Web surf in designated Internet cafes, and many ships have wireless access points at spots around the vessels. All of Norwegian's ships have such "hot spots," and the line rents wireless cards and laptops for $10 a day.

Celebrity lets passengers download MP3 music files to company-owned Apple iPods that can be rented on board for $10 a day. Vacationers can choose from about 47,000 songs in many musical genres, from classical to rap. The downloads are free, but passengers can't keep the music files when they leave the ship.

Jim Cannon, Celebrity's entertainment manager, notes that seniors - a big cruise demographic - have embraced the iPods.

"They love to have their swing numbers," he said.

For about $4, passengers can print out more than 150 different newspapers each day in several languages using a computer kiosk. Cabin TVs on most ships are outfitted with pay-per-view movies and automated booking of shore excursions. Digital X-rays taken on board can be transmitted by satellite to be examined by medical specialists on land.

All this technology amazes people like Hall. Just don't stroll onboard with a cell phone glued to your ear.

"That could be a little annoying," he said.


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