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Quick Clicks: Carnival Promises At-Sea Internet That Cruises

Image: Carnival Magic cruise ship.

Carnival Magic cruise ship.

When it comes to disconnecting from the outside world, there’s nothing like a cruise — just ask anyone who has ever tried to access the Internet at sea.

Between the slow speeds and high prices, that spinning beach ball of death has probably caused more frustration than finding nothing but crumbs at the midnight chocolate buffet.

Relief may be just a click away: On Monday, Carnival Corp., unveiled “WiFi@Sea,” a hybrid broadband wireless network that the company says will provide more stable Internet access and connectivity speeds up to 10 times faster than has been available to date.

“It will often provide a faster experience that is comparable to — and in some cases superior to — the experience a person typically has when accessing Wi-Fi in a location where free Wi-Fi is available, such as at a Starbucks,” said Ramon Millan, global CIO for Carnival Corp.

"We’ve all gotten spoiled by high-speed Internet access on land, so at sea, slow speeds are a big point of frustration."

Unlike current systems, which rely primarily on satellites, WiFi@Sea will automatically switch between satellites, port Wi-Fi systems and land-based antennas along popular cruising routes. “To get the best experience in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean requires different technology than when you’re at the dock in Miami,” said Millan. “We’ll use the one that offers the best connectivity depending on where the ship is.”

The system has been operating as a pilot program on 10 ships across the Carnival, Princess and Holland America fleets for the last 18 months. According to Millan, guest satisfaction ratings have been up to 50 percent higher than those for traditional systems.

That, of course, raises the question, “Up 50 percent from what?” At-sea Internet access has long been a significant pain point for many cruisers due to the double whammy of slow speed and high cost — it averages $0.75 per minute.

“We’ve all gotten spoiled by high-speed Internet access on land, so at sea, slow speeds are a big point of frustration,” said Colleen McDaniel, managing editor at CruiseCritic.com. “Throw in pretty high cost and cruisers have generally ended up being disappointed.”

Count veteran cruiser Brad Fenn among them. Currently sailing the Caribbean on Royal Princess, he used precious Internet time to e-mail this comment to NBC News: “I might not even mind paying so much for the service if it had a faster connection speed. To sit there and watch the little arrow go round and round on your dime by the minute is frustrating.”

Presumably, WiFi@Sea will alleviate some of that pain. Currently available on select ships in the Caribbean, the system will be expanded to Alaska in 2015 and then to other regions and across all nine Carnival brands in 2016. Pricing, packages and available services (e.g., Skype, streaming, videoconferencing) will vary by brand.

At that point, cruisers who’d still rather disconnect from the outside world will have to do it the old-fashioned way — with a book, a deck chair and a frosty beverage.