Cruise line plans 11ac network upgrades for stem-to-stern Wi-Fi

Royal Caribbean sees three-fold throughput gain via Meru's newest WLAN

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People sign up for cruise ships to get away from it all. But not quite all: Passengers still want Wi-Fi access for the growing number of mobile devices they lug with them on vacation for staying in touch, web surfing, music, photos and video. Cruise line Royal Caribbean is turning to 802.11ac to optimize their Wi-Fi connectivity for this mobile data deluge.

The company has been testing Meru Networks' just-released 11ac product, the AP 832. It's a two-radio product, each radio capable of running in either 2.4 or 5Hz bands, supporting three spatial streams, a maximum data rate of 1.3Gbps, and the ability to run all three streams and support 80-MHz wide channels on both radios over existing 802.3af Power-over-Ethernet. There are two gigabit-Ethernet ports. The 832 is priced at $1,295. The full AP 832 datasheet is online. 

Preliminary tests at Royal Caribbean's Florida "ship lab," which mimics conditions on board a ship, involved four Meru AP832 access points with 11ac and 11n clients. For the 11ac clients, the testers saw up to 782Mbps receiving and 634Mbps sending, compared to the company's existing 11n Wi-Fi target of 200Mbps.

But the testers also found that 11n clients saw a big performance gain. "We were able to see a 40% improvement with the new [11ac] chipset," says Greg Martin, IT director for Royal Caribbean Cruises, located in Miami.

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Those kinds of data rates make possible a wide range of changes, including doing away with Ethernet cabling for numerous VoIP phones, digital signage, kiosks and similar endpoints. Cabling aboard ships is an expensive, difficult engineering problem. "To eliminate wiring, we need better than 11n' capability," Martin says. "With higher capacity and higher throughput, 11ac is a big breakthrough. We can eliminate cabling by plugging in a Wi-Fi adapter" into a digital sign or kiosk.

In December, the company will run an 11ac pilot at its Springfield, Ore., call center. A limited shipboard pilot is planned for one ship, Navigator of the Seas, starting in January. The cruise line plans to deploy 11ac as the standard in all new ships, and phase in 11ac upgrades to the existing fleet. The next new ship, Quantum of the Seas, is still under construction, with a launch date of November 2014: It likely will be the first of the company's ships to get a stem-to-stern 11ac wireless LAN.

That pervasive network reflects the evolution of Wi-Fi, and the company's approach to it, over the past 10 years. Royal Caribbean has shifted from isolated hotspots to in-cabin Wi-Fi service to full-ship coverage for supporting internal applications, guest Internet access and some VoIP calling. "Our goal is that you can get connected and stay connected wherever you are aboard ship," says Martin.

Currently, the line deploys high-end Meru 802.11n access points on its ships. Depending on the ship's size, the number of access points can range from 300 to nearly 1,000, serving anywhere from 150 passengers and crew to about 8,000. Meru's approach to Wi-Fi simplifies access for the growing crowd of bring-your-own-device passengers, and creates a flexible, adaptive network well-suited to the unique all-metal labyrinth of a modern ship, according to Martin.

In its access points, Meru uses what it calls a "virtual cell" a technology that creates what appears to client devices as one, pervasive Wi-Fi channel. Separate channel "blankets" can in effect be layered, to increase network capacity. These features are coupled with proprietary technologies -- such as Air Traffic Control to monitor and manage both client and access point transmissions and Air Time Fairness to apportion bandwidth and time spent on the network to optimize bandwidth usage, capacity, and reliability.

With 11ac, the ships will be able to support video streaming of content from onboard servers, or from Internet sites like YouTube via each ship's satellite data link. The satellite link seems a potential bottleneck, not to mention a performance brake due to latency. But Royal Caribbean will shift to a new satellite provider in 2014, O3B Networks, which is deploying eight satellites in orbits that are closer to Earth than conventional geostationary telecom satellites.

"It will be a dramatically different experience for users aboard ship," says Martin. "There's a lot more capacity but also much less latency, typically dropping from 600-700 milliseconds in higher-orbit satellites to less than a 150 milliseconds. Both capacity and latency are important but latency has been the sticking point for us."

Currently, with ships running a 10-gigabit backbone, Martin says "we still have enough headroom to deploy 11ac without upgrading to a hundred gig. But we're watching that closely."

Finally, the ships have a sophisticated infrastructure of advanced caching and traffic shaping systems to create a responsive network for wireless users.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.com

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This story, "Cruise line plans 11ac network upgrades for stem-to-stern Wi-Fi" was originally published by Network World.

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