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No Asterisk on Cruise Ships … Yet

My in-law’s once-removed (see if you can figure that one out) chartered one of the finest cruise ships on the planet last week to take 200 of their closest friends on a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean. Do you have 200 close friends?? If you’ve watched the movie Speed 2: Cruise Control, you’ve seen this ship up close. They chartered the ship for several months to make the movie. There were actually 197 passengers and 179 crew on the ship for our cruise so life was pretty good… for a week. Now I’m cooking my own breakfast again. We were lucky enough to squeak onto the invitation list for the bottom deck. Actually, there was no bottom deck. Every room was palatial with digital TV, a DVD Player, thousands of free DVD movies, unlimited booze, slot machines, and… Well, you get the idea.

For those that live and breathe technology (like we do), I thought you might enjoy a brief technical update on cruising as it pertains to Internet and telephony use, especially Asterisk® and Skype. We set sail in St. Thomas for the West Indies with stops in Antigua, St. Martin, Virgin Gorda, and Nassau before returning to Fort Lauderdale. You can click on the photo to visit our Photo Gallery if photography happens to be one of your pastimes or if you just want to see what you missed.

Cruising and the Internet. Those two big round balls you see on the top deck of the Seabourn Legend are actually antennas that provide Internet service via satellite 24/7. We’re accustomed to Comcast’s 8 megabit service in Charleston, and it’s not quite that good. But it’s pretty damn fast. That’s the good news. The not so good news is that it’s still expensive, and the bandwidth is shared between Internet surfers and those wishing to make phone calls from the ship. Phone calls from the ship are $4.95 a minute, and Internet service via a ship-wide Wi-Fi HotSpot is $25 an hour. As you might imagine, while others were soaking up the sun, I was quizzing the Captain and Hotel Manager about unlimited service, cost, bandwidth, and better telephony solutions. They were very attentive. This technology is less than a year old. While there have been other providers for several years, reliability has been pretty terrible until now. As with any Internet service provider, the next step is figuring out how much bandwidth you actually need and whether it is cost effective to implement all-you-can-eat Internet service. Disney and some of the other big ships already have it, but 3,000 people sharing a satellite link is not exactly broadband at its finest. Seabourn, on the other hand, has ships that are technology marvels in and of themselves, and they want nothing less than the best Internet experience for every one of their 200 passengers. I’d give it one more year unless you have deep pockets. And, after signing up for a Seabourn cruise, you probably won’t.

Once we got past the sticker shock of $25 an hour Internet service, Plan B was to figure out a way to use Asterisk or Skype to beat the $4.95 a minute telephony charges. After all, even at $25 an hour, that works out to just over 40¢ a minute which is less than one-tenth the cost of their telephony offering. More bad news unfortunately. The service provider who set up the system has locked down all ports except port 80. Yes, Skype and Asterisk can live with port 80, but all of the UDP ports were blocked as well so home-grown IP telephony was pretty much dead. According to the hotel manager, they will unlock other ports as soon as they get the system stabilized. And unlimited Internet service is also on the drawing board. The temporary high cost is designed primarily to discourage heavy usage until they can put sufficient bandwidth in place to support the 10% of passengers who will probably use it.

Cellphone Service Onboard Ship. Seabourn is about half way through providing transparent cellphone service onboard every one of their ships all the time. The only prerequisitie is a GSM phone which left our Sprint service dead in the water, literally. Many onboard with Cingular service made and received calls regularly, and their Blackberrys had no trouble receiving and sending messages. Just wait until they get home and discover that all those calls were billed at $2.95 or more per minute. Roaming outside the U.S. isn’t included in any U.S. cellphone plans that we know of. Until Skype or Asterisk work, the real key to inexpensive telephone calls while cruising the world is to buy an unlocked Quadband GSM phone and then purchase a local SIM card at each destination. They are readily available within 100 yards of the dock so don’t bother to take one with you. If you don’t own an unlocked GSM phone, you can even rent one for about $35 a week. If you’d prefer to purchase a SIM card in advance of your trip, use Google to search for the country of interest: free incoming calls gsm sim card "antigua". Once known only for its postage stamps, the Principality of Liechtenstein has become the SIM card mecca of the universe, much like what Iowa has done for free international calling from the United States.

Using the One Ringy-Dingy Phone Trick. Be sure you purchase a local SIM card that includes free incoming calls. Why? Because you then can use Nerd Vittles’ One Ringy-Dingy Phone Trick to call your home Asterisk system from your new GSM phone, let it ring once, hang up, and let your Asterisk system call you back with outbound dialtone using DISA. Actually, this has gotten considerably easier since our original article 18 months ago. Newer versions of freePBX include a Callback option which does all the work for you without writing a single line of code:


If you want a more flexible SIM card that works in most countries with low-cost inbound calls, try a service such as United Mobile. Their incoming call rates for Antigua from the U.S. are 19¢ a minute. In 80 countries whose territory doesn’t look like an Island, the incoming calls are free. Doing the math, you’d pay 19¢ a minute for the inbound cell call plus your Asterisk rate from your U.S.-based Asterisk server to your assigned cellphone number from United Mobile. That total will almost always be considerably less than the outbound U.S. calling rate on your SIM card.

If you have additional telephony tips for those traveling around the globe, feel free to leave a comment and share it with our readers. Enjoy your cruise! We did.

Nerd Vittles Demo Hot Line (courtesy of les.net). You now can take a number of Nerd Vittles projects for a test drive… by phone! The current demos include (1) MailCall for Asterisk with password 1111 (retrieve your email by phone), (2) NewsClips for Asterisk (latest news headlines in dozens of categories), (3) Weather Forecasts by U.S. Airport Code, and (4) Weather Forecasts by U.S. ZIP Code. You’re not prompted for #4 yet, but it does work! Just call our number (shown in the left margin) and take any or all of them for a spin. The sound quality may not be perfect due to performance limitations of our ancient Intel 386 demo machine. But the price is right.

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  1. Now if only I could afford to take a cruise all the time! Some would argue that the whole point of a cruise is to get away vs spend time on the internet but some of us just can’t stay away. I wonder what the cruise lines are using for an internal phone system (if they have one).

    [WM: Typical hotel PBX on most ships: voicemail, wakeup calls, overpriced outbound calls, etc.]

  2. One thing you may want to try, establish a tcp tunnel through port 80 to one of your own boxes on the net, then pipe udp through that (IAX would probably be easier, since its all one port)

    Do check that you have good low rtt and low packet loss for this to have any hope of working.

    [WM: Why didn’t we think of that? We’ve even written about it on the Mac platform. Good idea for the next trip. Thanks.]

  3. How about g729 in your softphone over OpenVPN over port 80?

    (I, too, wonder what PBX the ship has onboard? Some clunky traditional piece of wall-mounted plastic from a big name manufacturer, I’m sure.)

  4. Re: "my in-law’s once-removed"

    You divorced your wife but then decided to re-marry her, so they were once removed?

    [WM: Heh, heh. Good guess, but no cigar.]

  5. Re: “my in-law’s once-removed”

    You divorced your first wife but Mom-in-Law still likes you and are still considered part of the family. Nice situation if it stays friendly.

    [WM: Getting closer. My wife’s first husband died as a result of a vehicle accident. We later married and her former in-law’s adopted me into the family.]

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