Harder Than Wiring Starbucks

By Andrea Orr  |  Posted 2005-06-13 Print this article Print

On one hand, the company faced the risk of whole swaths of the ship going uncovered by wireless access points; on the other hand, installing too many satellites was risky as well. Too many competing signals, just like competing radio stations, could cause the loss of the signal altogether.

"Its very different from a Starbucks, where you can put in one antenna and six people can surf the Web," said Harshaw. Yet Carnival was resolved to offer a reliable Internet connection and not one that would fade in and out with the unpredictable weather at sea.

Click here to read about Ciscos latest Catalyst network switch.
To ensure that it could pull off the project, Carnival partnered with Cisco to install Cisco Aironet 1230G Series IEEE dual-band access points. The equipment, which features two radio modules to extend the range of coverage, is typically used in especially challenging sites such as factories, warehouses or structures with high ceilings. Ciscos Catalyst 6509 Series Switches and Catalyst 3750 Series Switches were used to connect to the network.

Style meets substance

After Carnival selected the equipment, it took on the unprecedented task of installing it. Harshaw said teams of engineers from both companies descended on the ship and spent days walking every inch of it. Armed with laptop computers, antennas and "sniffer" equipment, they would read wireless traffic and detect the shifting qualities of reception throughout the ship.

From the data the engineers collected, they determined that more than 200 antennas would need to be scattered around the ship staterooms, common areas and 17 decks. Then they mapped out exactly where equipment would have to be installed to guarantee passengers a seamless wireless experience.

"We created a mobile Wi-Fi lab," said Harshaw, who explained that the teams finally devised a satellite map to ensure any passenger would be able to surf the Web anytime, from any spot on the ship.

By some accounts, building the system blueprint was the easy part. Transferring the two-dimensional map onto the ship itself was an entirely different matter. Harshaw said engineers flew to the shipyard in Italy to consult with shipbuilders and work out the challenge of building a mobile wireless Internet network without disturbing the ship designers aesthetic vision of an elegant and serene resort.

"It was easy to put dots on a flat drawing showing where we wanted the antennas to go," said Harshaw. "It was very difficult to go to the ship designers and say, We need an antenna there, when in reality there was 6 feet up in the air and in the middle of a block of concrete."

Ship designers worked to make sure the antennas would be invisible or at least obscure to the naked eye. Even in elevators or the ships prominent glass atrium, engineers were consulted to see whether the equipment could be moved a few inches or feet to a more aesthetically pleasing place.

After a great deal of effort and planning, the teams found ways to install more than 200 antennas within a meter of where they had been mapped out on the ships blueprint.

The effort paid off. On Dec. 15 of last year, the Carnival Valor set sail on its inaugural voyage to the Bahamas. On board were hundreds of guests, many of whom had packed their own personal laptops along with their cruise wear.

While the Valor also offers an Internet cafe equipped with flat-panel workstations, it can now guarantee that any Wi-Fi-enabled laptop will work in all its 1,487 staterooms and in every lounge, bar and restaurant and at every pool desk. The ship, which sails weekly from Miami to the Caribbean, offers Wi-Fi cards and rental laptops for a nominal fee and applies a charge of 25 cents per minute for Wi-Fi connectivity.

"When I started cruising 10 years ago, we barely had Internet access; and if you could connect, it was excruciatingly slow, so you couldnt count on it," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, who, as editor of the Web site Cruise Critic, based in Pennington, N.J., cruises frequently. "Now its so much faster, even cheaper ... and so much harder for Type A travelers to disconnect."

The new features became an instant hit with Carnival customers as well as with many of its staffers. Less than a month after the Valors maiden voyage, revenues from Wi-Fi charges had already doubled expectations.

While it will take a little longer to determine whether the new wireless features have translated into increased bookings on the Carnival Valor, the initial signs are strong. Harshaw said that every week Carnival hears from more and more customers who are interested in booking cruises but first want to be sure they can bring their laptops along.

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She can be reached at andrea_orr@sbcglobal.net.

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