Cruise ship technology – staying in touch with the mainland

There is no denying that we live in a connected world – and cruise ships are no exception. What used to be an opportunity to get away from everything and just sit back and relax, has changed into yet another place where you can keep up with the latest in your Facebook account or Twitter page.

This past weekend, I took a 3 day trip on the Carnival Dream, and spent a little time going over its various technologies designed to keep you connected with the mainland.
Telephone service

Every stateroom on the vessel has a phone, and the ability to dial any normal landline or mobile number in the world. The calls cost a whopping $6.99 per minute, making it a last resort for real emergencies. Even when airlines still offered the Airfone service, they never dared charge this much.

Mobile phone service

Cruise ship cellular access has been around for a couple of years – very little is done to advertise it, because when people realize the actual cost involved, they’ll keep their phones turned off.

The ships cellular network broadcasts both GSM and CDMA signals, which means you can connect using almost any cellular phone system. Once connected to the network, some companies send you a welcome text message, describing the charges (of the four phones I tested, only Verizon was kind enough to send that message).

The system supports incoming and outgoing voice calls, as well as text messages and data.

The rates for ship-to-shore calls and messaging are as follows:

  • AT&T – $2.49 per minutes, home plan rate for incoming SMS, 50 cents for outgoing SMS and $19.50/megabyte of data
  • Sprint – $2.49 per minute, 20 cents for incoming SMS, 50 cents for outgoing SMS and $20/megabyte of data
  • T-Mobile – $4.99 per minute, 20 cents for incoming SMS, 35 cents for outgoing SMS and $15/megabyte of data
  • Verizon Wireless – $2.49 per minutes, 0.05 cents for incoming SMS, 50 cents for outgoing SMS and $20 per Megabyte of data.

Internet access

Getting online on the Carnival Dream (and most other ships) is simple – you can use public terminals, or you can connect using your own WiFi enabled laptop, PDA or smartphone. Access is charged in minutes, not actual data usage.

On the Carnival Dream, access costs $24.99 for 60 minutes, up to $199 for 240 minutes. The speeds are surprisingly decent, and when I did a basic speed test, I measured about 500kb/s. One thing you can rule out is the ability to make voice calls over the Internet. The “latency” of the connection is about 2 seconds, making it useless for anything that requires a low latency like gaming or VOIP.

The login procedure is pretty simple – when you connect to the shipboard WiFi network, you are first taken to the onboard Intranet. This page is where you can access the Carnival Dream social network, read news, check out the latest entertainment agenda and see the deck plan. To login to full Internet access, you click their link, enter your account and surf away. To disconnect, you point your browser to and you are given an overview of how many minutes you used, and how many you have left in your account. If you forget to go through the logout procedure, you run the risk of losing minutes.

One thing to keep in mind, is that the system will automatically “reload” your account when you run out of minutes, and with the cost involved, it pays to keep a close eye on the time.

Satnav through England’s past

If you’re driving through England, a free download from English Heritage will make sure you won’t miss anything interesting along the way.

English Heritage is a government organization that manages more than 400 historic and archaeological properties across the country and advises the government and the public on preservation. They’re offering a free download satellite navigation application that shows the location of all their historic properties along your route. England is absolutely full of castles, cathedrals, stately homes, and other attractions but many of them are away from the highways and easily missed. With this application you can take a quick detour and have lunch in a medieval garden instead of some awful service station.

I’ve been to a lot of English Heritage properties, including famous ones like Stonehenge and lesser known ones like Tynemouth Priory (pictured here) and I’ve always found them worth a visit. The staff really know their stuff and they keep the properties in good shape. So if you’re brave enough to drive on the left (or know how to already) you’ll enjoy this app.

Product review – SPOT satellite messenger

Today I’m going to give you a closer look at a gadget that isn’t just fun to play with, it’s something that could actually help save your life.

The SPOT satellite messenger is part GPS receiver and part satellite locator beacon. The device receives your location from GPS satellites and relays it through even more satellites back to ground stations. It all sounds horribly complicated, but the SPOT messenger couldn’t be easier to operate.

The device is about the size of a small digital camera and only has 4 buttons (help, on/off, OK, 911). Naturally the on/off button is for powering the device on or off. The OK button sends an email or text message to a predetermined recipient (as well as activating the tracking feature) and the help button sends a “help me” signal with a personalized message to people you have added to your SPOT account. And finally, the 911 button actually alerts a global rescue organization that you are in trouble and need immediate assistance.

This emergency assistance is provided by the GEOS Alliance, an organization underwritten in London which provides search and rescue services. SPOT accounts optionally include up to $100,000 coverage per year for rescue resources (including helicopter, aircraft and private search teams). When GEOS receives an alert message, they will first try to contact you and your emergency contact numbers. By holding down the 911 button for 3 seconds, you can cancel your alert request.

The buttons are fairly easy to press, which also means you run the risk of pressing them by accident if you pack the device in your luggage, so pay extra attention when stowing it. The SPOT messenger weighs 7.4oz/209 grams and is made of impact resistant orange plastic with a black rubber bumper. SPOT rates their product waterproof in 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. The device also floats, which is handy if you find yourself falling overboard, just be sure to attach a lanyard to the opening in the back.

I’ve been using the SPOT messenger for several months, and it’s become just another gadget that I’d never leave home without. As I mentioned earlier, there is a less serious angle to this device, as you can share your current location with anyone back home. Your position can be sent via email or text message whenever you press the “OK” button. If you enable the tracking feature of the device, the SPOT messenger transmits your location every 10 minutes, which can be viewed on a Google map overlay on the SPOT site.

GPS and satellite reception is more than adequate outdoors, but you can’t rely on the device to function indoors. I’ve also had a hard time getting a GPS signal inside a car. So, if you had dreams of using this device to track your luggage, I’ll have to disappoint you; it won’t work. The device has just 4 indicator lights, and these don’t really provide enough information to figure out what the device is doing. You will need to read the manual and learn the various blinking codes. Of course, by not adding more lights, or a display, they have managed to make battery life quite impressive.

The SPOT messenger operates off 2 AA batteries, but SPOT strongly advise against using regular (alkaline or rechargeable) batteries and claim that the device operates best off non rechargeable lithium batteries (around $5 per pair). The batteries are installed in the device behind a plastic cover attached with 2 screws. To remove the back cover you also need to unscrew the belt clip. Full batteries can keep the unit powered for up to 2 weeks when in SPOT Tracking mode (with messages every 10 minutes) or for manually sending up to 1900 OK messages.

The SPOT messenger relies on access to 2 different satellite constellations; the US government GPS satellites, and the Globalstar network. GPS satellites cover almost every corner of the globe, but Globalstar is only available in select regions.

A coverage map for Gloablstar satellites can be found here. As you can see, there is no coverage in places like India, Hawaii and most of Africa. If you plan to purchase the SPOT messenger, be sure to check the local coverage before you leave.

The SPOT messenger costs $169 with service starting at just $99 a year. The basic service package includes unlimited 911 alerts, OK and help messages. This basic service does not include the progress tracking add-on which costs an additional $49.99 per year.

The GEOS search and rescue service is $7.95 per year when purchased upon activation (or $150 prior to activation). Bargain hunters can find the SPOT messenger through various vendors on for as little as $127.

Let me close with a warning; I’ve done a lot of reading about the SPOT messenger, and personal distress locator devices in general, and the experts on these devices make it clear that the SPOT messenger is not a replacement for a true emergency beacon. Don’t buy a SPOT messenger to replace your existing equipment if you plan to sail around the world or if you are off on your own climbing a mountain. In my opinion, it’s a great device for someone that normally would not carry a product like this or for someone who would like an affordable way of relaying back to their friends and family that they are ok. It’s also a fun way to keep your friends and family updated on your location. Imagine your kid logging on to his or her PC every morning to see where Daddy is. Make no mistake though, the SPOT messenger is a reliable emergency locator, and their “true stories” rescue pages have some great stories of how the device helped with rescue operations.