A 2.4-meter antenna, stabilized to compensate for the pitch and roll of a ship, provides a pipeline of voice and data access to dozens of people at any one time. That access is dispensed to passengers via antennas strategically located around each hot spot. "It allows cruise lines to run the business of a resort at sea,"says Brad Briggs, senior vice president with Maritime Telecommunications Network (MTN), one of the biggest players in offshore communications. "Guests at these very plush floating resorts want the same amenities as they'd get at a land resort."

Each cruise line is taking its own approach to Wi-Fi, adds Briggs. Some opt for anywhere from four to 10 designated hot spots; others choose to connect the entire ship.

"Cellular is a brand-new service rolling out now," he says. MTN did a deal with AT&T Wireless (now Cingular) to offer GSM signal coverage, with TDMA close behind - a deal that paved the way for Norwegian Cruise Lines to ramp up fleetwide cellular service. By the end of this year, everyone aboard almost every Norwegian cruise will be able to make and receive phone calls, get data messages and picture files - everything they're used to doing on land. Norwegian's aim is to rapidly reach the point where anyone can call from any cellphone anywhere on ship and just have the bill included in their monthly statement (the actual charges are now under negotiation).

The bill for Internet connectivity will come from the cruise lines themselves. To connect your laptop to Norwegian's Wi-Fi network, you'll pay $10 per day, plus per-minute charges as low as 40 cents a minute for 250-minute packages. That's not cheap compared with most land-based services - but it's less expensive and more convenient than, say, the $6.99 per minute Carnival currently assesses for in-room satellite phones.

There was a serious concern that universal wireless access would create a hubbub of loud and intrusive cellphone calls, says Rittenhouse. Norwegian has been playing it all by ear - listening for complaints and finding ways to limit annoyances by making strategic requests for good cellular conduct. Everyone turning up at a show lounge, for example, is cautioned to turn off their cellphone. And Norwegian intends to stay vigilant. If some a reason board need to be designated cellphone-free, Rittenhouse says, they're ready to move.

Carnival also wants to make sure that its passengers are ready to handle calling privileges. “Cellphone etiquette is something we are analyzing right now,” de la Cruz says. “Should there be cellphone-free zones on the vessels? That’s why we’re taking our time, making sure that when it is introduced, all guests will have the same opportunity. And then there’s the whole etiquette question, and whether there need to be certain rules on where you can call.”

Briggs speculates that this new era of connectivity might even attract new­comers to cruising. “Some business people have said: ‘I’m reluctant to go on a cruise because I need to stay in touch.’ Wireless opens the capability for any business person who might have hesitated to stay in touch and enjoy.”