Advanced Wi-Fi sinks old ship's network barriers

Ruckus beam-forming access points got around metal walls on the Queen Mary floating hotel

If your hotel is an antiquated, out-of-service ocean liner that's crossed the Atlantic 1,001 times, it's nice to know that the place has steel walls as much as 3 inches thick.

On the other hand, if you get there and want to fire up your Wi-Fi-equipped laptop to shop for Titanic memorabilia on eBay, those walls had better not get between you and the nearest access point.

The Queen Mary, a 1936 luxury liner that's now a floating hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach, California, takes guests back in time but doesn't want to strand them there.

So last year, the IT department started to look for a way replace its powerline Internet access system with the Wi-Fi service that 21st-century guests expected.

There were already a few hotspots around the ship, but they were small and only one was open for public use.

Covering all 314 guest rooms and 80,000 square feet of meeting space and restaurants would have proved difficult, because in addition to 3-inch-thick bulkheads -- which no Wi-Fi signal could ever penetrate -- there are many other metal walls that are an inch thick or more, according to Queen Mary IT Systems Analyst Edgar Stevens.

It would have taken more than 90 access points to unwire the ship using conventional technology, Stevens said.

Instead, the hotel chose gear from Ruckus Wireless, which uses flexible beam-forming technology to get around normally daunting obstacles.

Using just 33 Ruckus access points, system integrator Hotel Internet Services (HIS) was able to provide Wi-Fi to about 80 percent of the ship, and at least 95 percent of the areas the hotel needed to cover, Stevens said.

The Queen Mary may have been the state of the art in its time, but today it has several disadvantages when it comes to communications. Though a phone line could be pulled to the docked ship, it's too far from the nearest carrier central office to get DSL (digital subscriber line).

Leased T-1 lines are too expensive for the 1.5Mb per second (Mbps) speed they deliver, so the ship's lifeline to the Internet is a microwave line-of-site connection that delivers just over 2Mbps each way.

Power is also a problem: Harking from an age when cameras used film and pinochle was a major form of in-room entertainment, the ship has very few electrical outlets.

As for using 3G mobile data in a guest room, the networking team said visitors would have better luck tuning into Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Steve Dobbe, vice president of operations at HIS, once had to spend a night on the ship while working on another project and tried to use his laptop and 3G card to quickly check e-mail.

"I was standing at the porthole trying to hang my computer out the window, trying to get enough signal to pull in an e-mail, and I couldn't even do it," Dobbe said. "With that metal hull, there just isn't any cell service inside that ship."

The new in-room Wi-Fi service replaced a wired system, installed more than two years ago by HIS, that required hotel guests to check out a powerline-to-Ethernet adapter using a credit card. They had to plug that adapter into an electrical socket and plug an Ethernet jack on the other end into a laptop.

This was inconvenient and frustrated guests who were used to simply hopping onto a Wi-Fi network, said Gary Patrick, president and CEO of HIS. It also left out iPhones and other Wi-Fi devices that don't have Ethernet jacks.

The Ruckus ZoneFlex 2942 802.11g access points that HIS installed on the Queen Mary have a built-in array of antennas that can direct the Wi-Fi signal around obstacles and interference, according to the company.

HIS installed Ruckus ZoneDirector 1025 controllers with Power Over Ethernet capability to manage the access points, running standard Ethernet cables to most of the devices. In a few areas where cables couldn't be pulled, they linked the devices in a wireless mesh, Patrick said.

The connectivity challenges on board force the Queen Mary to throttle users' speed on the wireless LAN. Guests pay $US9.99 per day for a 512Kbps connection intended for e-mail and casual browsing, and $US10.99 for 1.5Mbps.

There are also hourly and weekly options. In the two months since the new Wi-Fi network was installed, it's been a hit: Even before the hotel started to advertise the new service, guests found it, asked about it, paid and logged on, doubling the number of Internet users from when the powerline system was the only option, Stevens said.

For all its headaches, the old ship has some advantages as a place to roll out a network, Dobbe said. The same steel barriers that complicated the Wi-Fi deployment also prevent all other radio interference.

It was easy to install Ethernet cables down the hallways because the ceilings are so low that no one ever needed a ladder. And there were some unexpected finds in the old liner.

"There's all these kind of weird, hidden compartments, which is good for when you're trying to find a place to put a switch," Dobbe said.

In addition to all the Queen Mary's antique fittings, past glories and rumored ghosts, there's a bit of LAN history, too, according to Stevens, the on-board systems analyst.

When he was hired in 2004, there were still remnants of a Token Ring network left behind by the Walt Disney Co. when it gave up its lease in the 1990s, he said. The IT staff kept some hubs in place as a tribute to a bygone era of networking.

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