A new company is banking on the desire of cruise ship passengers to stay connected by cell phone to drive the market for its latest venture.
SeaMobile Inc., a Seattle-based venture established in May, plans to use satellite technology to provide telephone and Internet services to cruise ships, yachts, ferries and other off-shore platforms.
The company is le d by a diverse group of individuals: DirectTV founder William Marks Jr. serves as chief executive officer; his father William Marks Sr., former president of American Video Corp., is chairman; and Chief Technology Officer Jim Ellis is among various people coming from McCaw Cellular Services.
The company is funded by its founders, a team of private investors and a venture capital firm known as Ignition Partners of Bellevue, Wash .
“It was very apparent to me this was an exciting venture, a new way of thinking and an untapped marketplace,” Ellis said. “An extension to the sea just seems like a natural extension; we affectionately call it the final frontier of wireless need and coverage.”
The technology is an “agnostic” [Internet Protocol-based] system, which means it doesn’t matter what type of phone a customer is using, Ellis said.
The platform on the ship, Ellis said, is very similar to a land-based wireless network, and relies on satellite connectivity.
“From a user’s perspective, it’s no different than if you took your phone from Washington, D.C., to Europe, it’s just like roaming on another operator’s network,” Ellis said.
The technology uses a very small aperture terminal to bounce its signal to a satellite and back to a teleport. SeaM obile’s technology interfaces with the satellite link already used by the cruise vessel, Ellis said.
SeaM obile’s venture is unique, Ellis says, because the company controls coverage on the cruise itself; it can provide extra capacity if an event is being held in a particular area, or turn off coverage in another area if needed. SeaMobile also will be monitoring the performance of its network on a 24-hour basis.
The company announced Sept. 29 it signed a three-year contract with Saab Ericsson Space of Sweden, for which Ericsson will supply a wireless network, monitoring and rollout services.
Right now, SeaM obile is “actively pursuing cruise lines,” Ellis said, though it has not signed any on for its service yet. The technology can be implemented once a deal is in place, and SeaMobile expects to have some signed within the calendar year, Ellis said.
Nancy Brumfield, the company’s vice president of marketing, thinks the technology will appeal to cruise companies because a number of people choose not to go on cruises because of the lack of phone and Internet connectivity available.
Brumfield said the company also hopes to be the first to offer custom applications, such as e-mail and video, to its customers, though it will begin by offering voice and short messaging.
“Because the backbone of our technology is what’s being used for land-based systems, we have the ability to do that,” Brumfield said.
SeaM obile hopes its service will appeal to more than just cruise lines. The company is targeting oil and gas platforms, yachts, ferries and the container shipping business, the latter which Ellis says relies on “antiquated technology” such as teletype for its communications needs. Cruise lines that run charter activities for businesses will be particular targets, Ellis said.
Though the market for SeaM obile’s technology isn’t crowded yet, there are competitors. Wireless Maritime Services, a joint venture between AT&T Wireless and Maritime Telecommunications Network (MTC) of Miramar, Fla., has arrangements with 40 cruise vessels, 12 of which already are equipped with wireless connectivity, according to MTC President David Kagan. MTC combines wireless and satellite technology, but only Global System for Mobile phones can use the system.
MTC has relationships with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian cruise lines, among others, Kagan said.
“They have nowhere near the capabilities we have as far as understanding the business needs of the market, us being ex-cruise executives,” Kagan said. “But we welcome them to the market and look forward to competing, and the better company will win out.”