Wi-Fi Makes Waves on Washington Ferries

By Ed Sutherland

August 31, 2004

Wireless Over Water officially debuts on the Puget Sound's favorite way to commute, showing off technology that may eventually be used by the Navy.

Washington State ferry riders are now able to use Wi-Fi during their usual down time while traveling on that state's extensive over-water transportation system.

Wi-Fi gear developer Chantry Networks and wireless integrator Mobilisa partnered to bring mobile access to some of the most heavily used ferry routes in the state.

Available to passengers using PDAs and laptop computers, the system uses 802.11 radios from Proxim, along with BeaconWorks routers and BeaconPoint APs from Chantry, to create a "mobile hotspot," according to Tom Racca, vice president of marketing at Chantry.

"Chantry's BeaconWorks was the only solution available that could service the large number of users, address the need for seamless roaming in complex conditions, make it easy for the passengers to use the system, and provide a simple way to administer the system," said Dr. Nelson Ludlow, CEO of Mobilisa.

"Handheld devices, laptops and PDAs have changed the way consumers work and play," said Racca in a prepared statement. "This paradigm shift from tethered to wireless is creating competitive pressures on core consumer services such as transportation and hospitality."

Each weekday, more than 75,000 Puget Sound residents use the ferry to commute. The Washington State Ferry system covers more than eight counties in the state and the Province of British Columbia in Canada. Consisting of 10 routes and 20 terminals, 29 vessels serve the system.

The new Wi-Fi service, already available on the M/V Klickitat which shuttles passengers between Port Townsend and Keystone, will be used by three more major ferry routes and could serve between 300 and 400 passengers at once.

Other ferries to include Wi-Fi service by Sept. 8 include the Edmunds and Seattle Bainbridge Island Routes, according to Mobilisa.

The move "is really improving productivity," says Racca. Because cell coverage is "scant," the two or three hours spent crossing the Washington State waterways without connectivity can result in an unnecessary amount of down time.

"Convenience is top for riders," says Racca. In order to ensure ease of use, two goals were uppermost in the minds of Chantry and Mobilisa: roaming and login simplicity.

Passengers are able to access the Internet from dock to dock. "Without roaming, there would be multiple logins," and the service "would be an annoying thing," says Racca.

Chantry's BeaconWorks architecture employs "thin" router-based APs that do not require users to install special software. Such software is a "no-go" when it comes to the large number of passengers using the Washington State ferry Wi-Fi service, according to the companies.

"The ability to deliver wireless features on moving platforms required an advanced network with several complex algorithms to allow passengers to stay connected while they move through the boat and as the ferry travels between docks," the companies said in a statement.

Mobilisa developed the Wireless Over Water (WOW) system to handle the aspects of the Wi-Fi experience that are unique to traveling across water. "You can't afford to have choppy signals," says Nelson.

The WOW system has caught the attention of the U.S. Navy, which intends to use the solution in what Nelson calls ship-to-ship WLANs or Floating Area Networks. The military is "investing a big chunk of money," Nelson says, using WOW to power a video surveillance system which is part of unmanned surface vehicles. The technology received a boost recently from an $800,000 U.S. Dept. of Transportation research and development grant.

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