Carnival eyes Google's Project Loon, other emerging technologies for hybrid system at sea, port

When Carnival Corporation set out a couple of years ago to update communications for its fleet of more than 100 ships, it talked to companies like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), which is making strides with its Project Loon. The Loon project is designed to use balloons launched into the stratospheric for providing Internet access on Earth.

Carnival CIO Ramon Millan

Millan (Source: Carnival Corp.)

While it's not currently as widely available as Carnival needs it to be, the cruise ship company is keeping an eye on Google's progress as well as other emerging technologies in case they make sense to incorporate down the line.

"The beauty with what we are doing is that if tomorrow there is another technology, if Google is very successful and then we want to include that technology in the portfolio," then it can get added to the mix, Ramon Millan, senior vice president and global chief information officer for Carnival Corporation, told FierceWirelessTech. "It's very flexible."

Carnival's backbone connectivity network, known as [email protected], is integrating a combination of strategically located land-based antennas installed along cruise routes, Wi-Fi from a port connection and advanced satellites, forming a network that is believed to be a first of its kind on this scale in the cruise industry. The cruise ship company unveiled its hybrid network plans earlier this month.

Carnival is using about six technologies from eight different vendors, including the likes of Cisco and Harris Corp. It's structured such that if a new technology comes along that it wants to add, it can do so. Likewise, if an existing technology wears out its welcome, it can drop it, he explained.

Once completed, the integrated network will seamlessly switch among its various technology solutions to give passengers the highest available bandwidth capacity and strength of signal, capable of providing speeds roughly 10 times faster than what Carnival previously offered on ships. The investment projected for the entire project, when complete across all geographies, is expected to be roughly $10 million, a spokeswoman told FierceWirelessTech.

It's also using information about the geography--like if a mountain is blocking the ship from getting a signal--to make sophisticated decisions on which technology to use at a given place and time. "Our knowledge base is working together with this algorithm to see which technology to use," Millan said.

Obviously, things get simpler when you're in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean because the only technology available is satellite, he said. But when the ships are closer to ports or at ports, it makes sense to use another technology.

The process of analyzing various technologies started a couple years ago. "We realized that the world was changing and satellite may not be … the only technology available for our industry," he said. "At that time, we evaluated everything that was available," including satellite, Wi-Fi at port, long-range Wi-Fi and medium-range Wi-Fi.

"This is an ecosystem and we are optimizing the connectivity across all the ships in the system through this hybrid model, which allows us to have a portfolio of multiple technologies to switch from one to another depending on multiple criteria," he said. This allows ships in the middle of the ocean to use satellite while ships that are closer to shore can use another technology rather than stretching the satellite bandwidth.

Millan said he and his team are keeping an eye on fast-moving technologies. "I have no doubt, we're very close" to seeing big companies like Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Google and others develop new technologies that offer more Internet services to unconnected places.

"Maybe some of them are going to be very disruptive," he said. "I don't know, but when we have them, we're ready to adopt them. This model gives us flexibility and agility to adopt new technologies," as opposed to getting into a multiyear contract with one technology and stuck there. "If something becomes available next year or two years from now, we can't leverage it."

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