I have taken 2 cruises in the last 3 years, one to Alaska and this recent one in the Mediterranean. The cruise in Alaska was on Holland America, a cruise line owned by Carnival Corp. and this recent cruise was on Regent Seven Seas owned by the Apollo Group. Both cruise ships had internet and cell phone service. Both services are offered via a satellite link provided by SeaMobile, although the cellular service (Cellular@Sea) is managed by a subsidiary called Wireless Maritime Services which is joint venture with AT&T Mobility.
The cellular functionality on Regent's Seven Seas Navigator provided GSM/GPRS and CDMA/1XRTT voice/data services. As I remember it the Holland America ship only had GSM service, but by now it probably has been upgraded to handle CDMA traffic as well. The ship's cell site only operates when the ship is out of range of local cellular service. It is a roaming service where your cellular carrier bills you for all voice and data. The costs seem to be fixed across all US carriers at $2.49 per minute for voice calls, $.50 to send an SMS, $1.30 to send an MMS, and $.0195 per KB for data. The fact that all carriers are charging the same seems like price collusion but who am I to say. The Bottom line it is expensive, but much cheaper than using the wired phone in the cabin at $6.95 per minute. Also carriers offer data plans which can be very beneficial for heavy email users, Verizon offers a global unlimited email plan for $69.99 per month and includes cruise ships. AT&T International Data plans do not include cruise ships which is a real shame. I talked to both AT&T and Verizon customer service before I left. They gave me detailed information, provided me with alternatives and more than once warned me about the costs. Given the articles that have surfaced about surprise bills (especially with the iPhone); it is clear that carriers are going out of their way to educate consumers. The catch you have to call them. Even if you think you understand it all, I strongly urge everyone to call their carriers before leaving on trip abroad. AT&T emailed me an FAQ about the iPhone, and Verizon emailed a detailed rate chart with the list of countries I planned to visit.
On the internet front, both cruise ships I have been on had Internet cafes with workstations, the Regent Seven Seas Navigator even had WIFI throughout the ship. The service is run by another arm of SeaMobile called MTN Satellite Services. They charge by the minute and the cruise line can offer several different plans to its guests. On the Seven Seas Navigator I had the option of 250 and 500 minutes. As part of Regent's loyalty program, after you cruise 21 nights you get free internet which is a very nice benefit. The 250 minute plan was $87.99 with a first time registration of $3.50. The 500 minute plan was about double. Additional minutes on the 250 minutes plan were $.35 and $.25 on the 500 minute plan. I find it interesting that they charge by the minute rather than the Kilobyte, but given all the activity I saw in the Internet Café I can understand why; minutes should get people off of the workstations faster but I was amazed how many people seemed oblivious and where typing email tomes in web based editors. I was told by the Internet Café manager that the average speed is about 65Kbps per user. Unfortunately I neglected to run a speed test, but from an end user perspective it was not broadband but response times where decent. If you want to see the world and have some IT skill they are looking for people, here is the job description.
I ended up purchasing the 250 minute plan which over 11 days gave us about 22 minutes a day. Since I had problems with my Sony VAIO P's wireless drivers, my wife and I ended up using our iPhones. We would connect to download email, disconnect, respond off line, then connect again to send. One of my major pet peeves with the iPhone's email application (ActiveSync/Hosted Exchange) is its inability to deal with deletions offline (you get an error message). I would love to know how Apple thought that was a good idea…Anyway, the plan worked out well and I even had some minutes left over to go to the Internet Café to check in with United Airlines online and print our boarding passes. I also tried Skype on the iPhone using the $2.95 per month unlimited subscription plan to call phones in the US and Canada. It worked well, the person on the other end heard a little breakup (I would expect that with constrained satellite uplink speeds), but we heard them very clearly. This made calling much cheaper ($.35 per minute on our plan) than using the in cabin wired phone or on board cell system, but still more expensive than the calling card (although you need a dry land wired phone!). During the entire 12 day trip we only had a couple hours one evening where we could not get connected. The default web page told us that interference was blocking the satellite signal.
I think bringing your own computing device makes a lot sense so you can perform tasks off line to save your minutes, and then connect for data transmission. I saw a couple of Dell Mini notebooks, and a Mac book. On the mobile device front, the BlackBerry was king (looked like mostly corporate types), although iPhones were around. I did see one bulky satellite phone (it reminded me of early cell phones), why someone would think you need one on today's cruise ship intrigued me, maybe they owned it or their company wanted them to have failsafe communication. The gentleman had to stand outside on the pool deck to make a call. I also thought that newer satellite phones could switch between cell and satellite.
The bottom line is that staying connected on a cruise today is possible and easy. You just have to do a little research on plan options with your cell phone carrier or purchasing an on board internet plan (I suggest bringing your WIFI enabled smartphone or netbook) make to cost manageable if you need to stay connected without needing to be online 24/7…