Ever since Odysseus steered for Troy, ships at sea have been isolated satellites of human endeavor, cut off from the shore and the ever-pressing demands of everyday, dry-land existence.
But soon, all that will be ancient history.
In just a few short years, the telecommunications revolution has seized command of nearly every cruise ship - from cutting-edge stem to luxury stern. And with new advances coming at a dizzying speed, the key decisions aren't so much whether passengers can call anywhere, anytime, or click online at anyplace onboard, but whether protocol demands that at least some of the communicating be limited to discrete locations so as not to disrupt passengers who are happy to leave it all behind.
Welcome aboard, for example, the newly commissioned Carnival Valor, 110,000 tons of fun that hosts nearly 3,000 passengers (based on double occupancy). Every square inch of its staterooms, cabins, bars, and deck chair space has wireless Internet access. Carnival Cruise Lines is also negotiating with wireless-service providers to make it possible for every brand of cellphone to call anywhere in the world from its ships.
"Once, one of the attractions of the cruise was to get away from it all," says Carnival's Jennifer de la Cruz. "Thirty years ago, you had to go to a radio room to make a call. But things have changed.The fact is that people want to stay connected via e-mail and via phone."
These days, connectivity rules the waves. Getting away from it all has been relegated to Alaskan ice fishing expeditions. Carnival, of course, isn't alone in pushing for wireless and Internet access. Cruise lines are acutely conscious that many passengers come up the gangway armed with cellphones, BlackBerrys, laptops, and often lengthy to-do lists. The masters of at-sea leisure are now catering to those passengers for whom work and leisure go hand in hand. Ships of every stripe have been improving connectivity, driven in part by the cold, hard reality that if they don't do it, a competitor will. In December, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. added cellphone service to several of its Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships, and last fall it upgraded Internet bandwidth for its entire Royal Caribbean fleet. Also in December, Princess Cruises rolled out Wi-Fi service across its entire fleet. Radisson Seven Seas Cruises even installed desktop computers in 26 of the high-end luxury suites on its newly commissioned Voyager.
"In today's world, people want to stay connected, and we have to stay up with the trends," says Lania Rittenhouse, vice president of hotel operations for Norwegian Cruise Line, the first North American cruise operator to roll out Wi-Fi to its entire fleet.
The technology at work is easily adapted for ships, with upgraded satellite services offering lightning-fast connections.