Neuron’s Head of Cruise & Ferry Kidsan Barnes on Disrupting Connectivity Technologies in the Cruise Industry

April 2, 2024

In this interview, Kidsan Barnes, SVP of Cruise & Ferry at Neuron, shares her journey to cruise connectivity. She also discusses the challenges and opportunities for the cruise industry in embracing new connectivity services and technologies, the importance of shifting to a quality of experience mindset, and making digital a key differentiator.

You have a broad mix of connectivity industry experience, having worked on the provider side, as well as in hardware and software. Tell us a little bit more about your background and how that led you to cruise connectivity.

Kidsan Barnes: I started working in connectivity fresh out of high school at Bellsouth, now AT&T. There, I fell in love with complex connectivity products, and that led me to global satellite communications. After AT&T, I worked on the satellite provider side, bringing LTE and connectivity to remote areas of Africa. That included building out connectivity in countries like Chad and Congo. After a few years of focus and time spent away from home, I saw fiber installations in those regions becoming more prevalent, and a shift away from the need for so much satellite connectivity. As life had it, at that time I also needed a shift to be at home in Florida more often. That’s when I jumped over to the maritime side and began my journey in cruise connectivity. 

Over the last ~12 years, I’ve led cruise sales and account management at companies including Maritime Telecommunications Network (MTN), now known as Anuvu, as well as Intellian and Neuron. I consider myself one of the few people in cruise connectivity that have been on multiple sides of the connectivity ecosystem, from service provider to hardware manufacturer to software platform. That experience has given me a unique perspective, including the importance of collaborating with partners across the value chain. 

Why is connectivity still such a big challenge for cruise?

KB: The basic answer to this question is that connectivity is a challenge for all moving things. Satellite tracking, bandwidth requirements, and context that changes constantly – there are many moving parts. However, in cruise, there’s an added layer of complexity because service is influenced not only by factors like weather and location, but also by passengers’ online behaviors – for example, thousands of people streaming is different than thousands of people browsing.    

The challenge in cruise connectivity is understanding every piece of the puzzle and using that knowledge to stabilize your ecosystem, regardless of the connectivity options available. For a long time, cruise connectivity was managed solely by a customer's contracted service provider, but over the last four years there has been a shift toward integrating additional players, like LEO and MEO operators. Through this shift, cruise connectivity teams have begun to peel back the onion, and realized they lack the data and context needed to make informed decisions and orchestrate traffic in a way that optimizes for passenger quality of experience (QoE). For example, how much bandwidth is needed to support a certain type of event onboard a ship? Or to meet passenger expectations for a specific Wi-Fi package? Plus all of the additional context and limitations that often surround a city at sea. 

Connectivity technologies in cruise have always needed disruption. Now, digital expectations are changing so fast, cruise lines have to be prepared to deliver based on passenger requirements. There’s a big opportunity for cruise lines to embrace a new way of doing things and make their digital platforms a differentiator. This is where the technical talent connects to the business teams to ensure a solid framework with creative brand design for a cruise line's target passenger.

Can you elaborate more on the value of Neuron to the cruise industry? How does the Neuron platform help cruise lines understand all of these different data streams and orchestrate traffic to improve passenger QoE?

KB: Neuron saw a need in the market for products designed specifically to understand and address the unique challenges faced by the cruise industry. While there are visibility tools that exist in cruise today, as well as SD-WAN tools, Neuron doesn’t compete with any of these – it takes cruise connectivity and digital experience management to the next level, focusing on passenger experiences.

Once a cruise line understands the depth of the problems they need to solve for, now and in the future, they will quickly realize that existing tools cannot deliver the same ROI as an intelligent decision engine that can take multiple data streams, such as RF details, iCafe context, QoE metrics, application requirements, vessel information, weather, location and more, and use all of that information to orchestrate traffic, in real-time, in a way that ensures every Kbps of bandwidth is used by the right GEO, LEO or MEO service for the best possible QoE. 

That’s what Neuron was built to do. Our analytics solutions, Neuron Pulse and Neuron 360, consolidate a variety of data across multiple connectivity services and technologies onto a single platform, and our AI-powered network management solution, Neuron Grid, is able to correlate all of that data and use machine learning to make traffic routing decisions at a pace that would be impossible for a human. Truly, the best engineers in cruise connectivity, and I know quite a few, wouldn’t be able to configure systems as smart and dynamic as this platform. 

Now, there’s less of a need to touch or configure policies, and more time spent understanding passenger behavior and ways to improve services and deliver digital experiences. Many cruise lines also appreciate that Neuron is vendor-neutral, meaning, we don’t sell bandwidth – the data we provide is truly independent. They can now use this data as a connectivity validation tool, and it can help inform their broader connectivity strategy as new technologies and services emerge.

You mentioned the shift to LEO, and we know that Starlink has made big waves in the cruise industry (no pun intended!). Can you elaborate on the value Neuron brings to cruise companies that have, or are considering, working LEO into their mix of solutions?

KB: Starlink is definitely a welcome addition to the connectivity pool of options. It’s like a very gifted child that we’ve all been watching grow over the last few years. Ironically, when the time came, the cruise community was not ready to integrate a player like Starlink. When it comes to LEO integrations, there are a few voids that Neuron can fill. With Neuron Grid, Starlink or other LEO and MEO services don’t need to be separated by traffic policies to serve “only” certain networks onboard – such as passengers but not crew, or passengers and crew but not corporate. Grid consolidates all available bandwidth, including LEO, GEO, MEO and LTE, into a single pipe and ensures that all traffic, whether passenger, crew or corporate, can access the best performing service at any given time. 

The ability to access more bandwidth pools, in ways that are cost-effective, will help push cruise to the next level of digitization faster. The future of cruise connectivity and making efficient use of these new bandwidth options requires a solution like Grid to dynamically orchestrate those services and integrate additional partners that enhance passenger experiences.  


Let’s talk more about QoE. Why is QoE such an important metric for cruise companies to measure?

KB: Think of a stable, well-managed network, where bandwidth can be used, as needed, for whatever experience a cruise line wants. A consistently tracked QoE metric will help them better understand their passenger experience and immediately address any issue that may impact that experience. Neuron developed a unique QoE scoring system that makes it easy for cruise lines to measure and monitor passenger QoE in real-time. 

Going back to the complexity of cruise connectivity, having a streaming QoE score, collaboration QoE score, browsing QoE score and more helps provide a deeper understanding of when and how different use cases are impacted by different factors within the satellite communications ecosystem. Shoreside teams should know the performance of applications and networks without having to ask someone onboard. They can do that with QoE scoring. We have also done many reviews of Neuron’s QoE scores correlated with a cruise ship’s NPS and overall customer feedback scores. The scores consistently run parallel to one another, so now, leadership teams can review QoE data to get an idea of what passengers will say about an experience at the end of the sailing.  

How do you see the cruise industry evolving over the next decade?

KB: I’m excited for the continued evolution of cruise. Once cruise lines are confident in the stability of their networks, the possibilities are endless with regards to how they digitize and creatively use the bandwidth available to them. Many cruise lines will start to realize they aren’t prepared to manage new technologies that demand dynamic bandwidth allocation, and that’s ok – we’ll be there to help. With Neuron, they can manage end-to-end connectivity, with network stability, visibility and QoE tracking, dynamic bandwidth allocation and the overall digitization of cruise.  

Amazing. Let’s wrap up with some fun facts. How many cruises have you been on? What’s been your favorite cruise experience so far, and why?

KB: I have been on about 12 cruises. In the cruise world, that’s actually not a lot. Over the next decade, I also look forward to increasing those numbers, especially to spend time on some of the newer ships! 

My favorite cruise experience so far was in December 2021, a time when COVID had slowed down, but a new strain was coming out. We had a group of about 18 family and friends on a 10-day, end-of-year holiday sailing trip. Due to COVID and unexpected port closures, we missed all of the ports that were planned, including the highlight for many – the Panama Canal. But, we didn’t let that get us down. Our group had the absolute best time celebrating every day on the ship with the crew and each other, and the captain did his best to get us to ports that would open. The trip really demonstrated the importance of delivering a great onboard passenger experience.

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