Washington state ferries eye Wi-Fi

In the latte-fueled and Internet-obsessed Seattle region, 15,000 daily commuters who cruise to work on 25 Washington state ferries face dual withdrawal on a trip that can last as long as an hour: No Internet access, and if they don't have cash, no caffeine either.

That's because until recently neither the funding nor technology existed to provide Internet access aboard the ferries, meaning passengers can't surf the Web or charge a latte and Danish because the boats' registers lack a link to process credit card transactions.

But Jim Long, IT director for the state ferry system, said Internet access for crew members, food service operations and passengers could be available as soon as next summer -- if the U.S. House backs a US$1 million wireless project that won Senate backing earlier this year.

The measure, with the support of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), could come up in the House when it returns to session after next month's elections.

"Washington state has the largest passenger ferry system in the nation," Murray said Thursday. "Each week, commuters spend hours on ferries. I'm working to make wireless access available on ferries so that commuters can take advantage of the Internet and other communication services while they travel to and from work."

If the project gets the go-ahead, Washington State Ferries would become the first ferry system in the world to provide passengers and crew with continuous, high-speed Internet connectivity.

The Alaska Marine Highway System has installed wireless LANs on its ships for the use of the crew, but it works on a store-and-forward basis with connections established only when the boat comes within range of access points installed at shore terminals.

Long envisions what he called a floating-area network (FAN) that would blanket each ferry with coverage from industry-standard 802.11b or Wi-Fi wireless LANs. These would provide the kind of high-speed connections needed to run credit card point-of-sale systems in ferry restaurants as well as help automate many onboard paper processes, such as crew scheduling and time cards.

He believes the public access part of the FAN will answer a real demand from high-tech commuters who work at companies such as The Boeing Co., RealNetworks Inc. and Microsoft Corp. and are frustrated by the lack of Internet connectivity. Trips on the ferries can take as much as two hours a day roundtrip on the 12-mile Bremerton-Seattle run and slightly less on the eight-mile Bainbridge Island-Seattle route.

The WLANs would also allow the crew to quickly access Web-based safety information to help manage disasters such as chemical spills, Long said, as well as provide onboard engineers quick access to information about the boats themselves, including repair manuals.

Nelson Ludlow, CEO of Mobilisa Inc., a Pt. Townsend, Wash., systems company, said providing high-speed wireless service on one ferry, let alone 25 operating over a variety of routes in Puget Sound, is far more daunting than providing Wi-Fi access in Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. coffee shops. (Mobilisa, according to a statement from Murray, would help develop the wireless system.) The Jumbo II class ferry boats used by the ferry system each carry 2,500 passengers and 218 vehicles on four decks. The amount of steel in each vessel makes it difficult to provide uniform wireless coverage, Ludlow said. He estimated it would take at least 10 Wi-Fi access points to do the job.

Providing connectivity from boat to shore presents another challenge, he said. Mobilisa plans to use a fixed microwave service that will provide two T1 (1.54M bit/sec.) circuits to the ferry fleet. Shore microwave towers would transmit in a 12-degree arc, or enough to provide a clear connection to boats operating in southern Puget Sound.

Other engineering and design challenges include hand-offs between the fixed microwave and Wi-Fi systems and antenna placement. Ludlow declined to provide details for competitive reasons, but said Mobilisa is well suited for the job due to its experience with wireless installations on Navy ships.

Pricing for the public access serviced "has to be competitive with ISP rates," Ludlow said, or below the typical $19.95 per month an ISP charges for dial-up service.

Jon Russo, vice president of marketing at iPass Inc. in Redwood Shores, Calif., which provides wireless and wired Internet connectivity for enterprises worldwide, called the Washington ferry wireless project "the cutting edge" of public access Wi-Fi deployments. But, Russo said, Wi-Fi deployments designed to serve travelers in locations such as airports and hotels have been "wildly successful" due to what he described as a "captive audience."

If money comes through, Long said, high-speed access could be available as soon as next June on some routes, with boats retrofitted with Wi-Fi gear as they cycle through routine maintenance at the ferry system's Eagle Harbor facility on Bainbridge Island.

Ludlow said that, business aside, he is motivated by more than the bottom line. Calling the ferries an icon of the Seattle area, Ludlow said he wants to be known as the man who brought Internet service to the fleet.

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