Cruise ships have generally gotten a bad rap for offering travelers slow and expensive Wi-Fi. But one cruise line is hoping to change that by bringing SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet on board.
Royal Caribbean, one of the world's largest cruise operators, announced last week that it would deploy the SpaceX network across its entire fleet of passenger vessels. This makes it the first cruise operator to ink an internet deal with Elon Musk’s rocket and spacecraft company. Royal Caribbean plans to begin installing Starlink infrastructure immediately and hopes to complete the project by spring 2023, according to a statement.
The cruise company’s decision comes on the heels of a Starlink trial on one of its largest ships, Freedom of the Seas, that received “tremendous positive feedback from guests and crew,” per the statement. In June, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave SpaceX the green light to provide Starlink to moving vehicles, including semi-trucks, RVs, planes and freighters, which cleared the way for the company to offer in-cruise Wi-Fi.
Many cruise lines already use space-based Wi-Fi, but the satellites in those networks are located much farther away from Earth than SpaceX’s are. By placing their Starlink constellation in low-Earth orbit, SpaceX aims to deliver faster internet by decreasing the distance that information must travel to reach the ground.
Since May 2019, SpaceX has created an interconnected network of more than 2,500 satellites. Its leaders say they hope to build out the array to 42,000 satellites and provide internet around the globe. Starlink wants to “[rebuild] the internet in space,” Musk said when he announced plans for the new service in 2015, as reported by Space.com’s Peter B. de Selding. As of May, Starlink had 400,000 subscribers in 36 countries, with plans to expand.
But the ambitious project has not been without setbacks: In February, for instance, a solar storm knocked 40 satellites out of orbit. And astronomers have complained the reflective satellites block the night sky, while environmentalists have concerns about the company’s contributions to space debris and climate change.
For now, Royal Caribbean cruise customers will only be able to use Starlink in coastal areas, as the service doesn’t yet work in the middle of the ocean, reports TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey. Starlink hopes to add mid-ocean service in the northern hemisphere by the end of 2022, then expand into the southern hemisphere by early next year.
Despite this limitation, early testers of the service on board Freedom of the Seas were impressed by the offering.
“We tried watching YouTube videos and Netflix shows to see how they would work,” wrote Nicole Feist in a review for Royal Caribbean Blog, an unofficial fan blog that is not affiliated with the cruise line. “Both [Starlink] packages allowed us to instantly start watching the videos, with no lag or buffering time.”
The cruise line didn’t release any technical details about the broader Starlink rollout, such as how much bandwidth will be shared between thousands of passengers, so it remains to be seen how fast and reliable the service will be for cruisers in the future, per The Verge’s Mitchell Clark.
Starlink’s household internet service starts at $110 per month, with an additional upfront hardware charge of $599. Ships at sea, for comparison, pay $5,000 per month and a one-time hardware cost of $10,000 for two terminals via “Starlink Maritime.” Neither Royal Caribbean nor SpaceX revealed what the cruise line is paying for its Starlink service, but photographs released by Royal Caribbean show six terminals installed in a small area on one of the company’s ship decks.
In addition to cruise ships, SpaceX has also made deals to get into the inflight Wi-Fi business, partnering with Hawaiian Airlines and JSX. Delta Air Lines also tested the service on some of its planes, and SpaceX recently announced a collaboration with T-Mobile to connect cell phones with its network.