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Taking a cruise used to be one of the few ways for travellers to “get away from it all”, blissfully out of telephonic reach – except in an emergency - until the ship docked in port. Not so today.

Cingular Wireless, the biggest US mobile carrier, is busy wiring many of the world’s biggest cruise ships with the equipment needed to make and receive mobile phone calls, send text messages or check e-mail using passengers’ own handsets.

The news comes only days after Ryanair, the cut-price airline, said it would equip its fleet of aircraft with an onboard mobile service by next year.

Cingular, through its Wireless Maritime Services joint venture with Maritime Telecommunications Network, is rapidly cornering the expanding cruise ship mobile telephony market signing up many of the biggest cruise ship lines including Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.

WMS already provides cellular service for eight cruise lines and has roaming agreements in place with over 300 carriers, both GSM and rival CDMA carriers, in over 180 countries.

That means in most cases passengers who bring their own mobile phones – or BlackBerrys – can use them on board paying the same sort of roaming fees that they would if they were visiting a foreign country.

“A year ago we had seven ships and now we have 31 ships fitted out,” said Leighton Carroll, chief executive of the WMS joint venture. “By the end of this year it will be 50 plus.” And usage is also soaring – up 1,000 per cent over the past year, according to Mr Carroll.

“Consumers view cell phones as a necessity in today’s world,” said Bob Dickenson, Carnival’s chief executive in June when the cruse ship line signed a deal with WMS covering Carnival’s fleet of 21 vessels.

Carnival currently also has three new ships on order - including the 110,000-ton Carnival Freedom, due for delivery in February, which will also be fitted with the gear needed to send and receive wireless voice and data calls.

New cruise ships like the Carnival Freedom are typically built with the sophisticated electronics needed to turn them into floating mobile phone cell sites already installed, but WMS also retrofits ships – usually when they are in port.

Calls to and from ships are routed via Maritime Telecommunications Network’s satellites and through the WMS shore-based routers to the wireless networks.

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