Washington State Ferries expands ferryboat Wi-Fi service

It expects to offer wireless service on Seattle routes this fall

Washington State Ferries plans to offer free Wi-Fi service to passengers on ferryboats on its high-traffic Seattle-area routes this fall, according to Jim Long, IT director for the ferry system.

Long said the ferry system has just finished testing Wi-Fi service on the M/V Klickitat on the Port Townsend-Keystone route, which connects the Olympic Peninsula to Whidbey Island about 43 miles northwest of Seattle. He said the quality of service "could not have been better."

The ferry system expects to offer the Wi-Fi service on one vessel running from Edmonds, 18 miles north of Seattle, to Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula in late September, with service planned for the heavily traveled Seattle-Bainbridge Island route in November, followed by the Seattle-Bremerton route in December.

Eventually, Long said, he would like to have all 25 boats in the ferry fleet connected to a wireless WAN that treats each "individual ferry boat like an office building" hooked up to a wired WAN. The fleet carries 26 million passengers per year between 20 ports of call.

That's exactly what Mobilisa Inc., now running a nearly yearlong test of Wi-Fi for Washington State Ferries, is delivering, according to Nelson Ludlow, CEO of the Port Townsend-based company. Mobilisa has installed a wireless WAN that treats about 400 square miles of Puget Sound "like one big WAN," with Wi-Fi service and wireless backhaul to the Internet available on ferryboats operating anywhere in the area. The Mobilisa tests are funded by a $1 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration.

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Washington State Ferries expands ferryboat Wi-Fi service
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Ludlow said Mobilisa has installed a two-stage wireless system to provide coverage to the Washington State Ferries. The first stage provides connectivity from the shore to the boats with point-to-multipoint unlicensed wireless gear operating in the 5.8-GHz band from Proxim Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Proxim's Tsunami MP11a system supports mobile roaming, which is key to ensuring an uninterrupted backhaul from the boats as they move from the coverage area of the fixed-link wireless antennas installed on one side of a route to antennas on the other side. Since the Port Townsend-Keystone run doesn't allow line-of-sight coverage, this required installation of two antennas on the Keystone side, Ludlow said.

Mobilisa also had to develop its own switching algorithms to handle the handoffs between the fixed-wireless shore stations, as the signal from the vessel could bounce from one shore antenna to another throughout its run. Ludlow said Mobilisa experienced few outages in its tests with the Klickitat, which began in April—although an aircraft carrier did block the signal on one day.

Mobilisa has already installed Proxim fixed-wireless gear and antennas to serve the Everett-Kingston and Seattle-Bainbridge routes, Ludlow said, and is awaiting installation of the Wi-Fi access points on the boats along those routes to begin service. The ferry system has just about completed negotiations for the antenna sites that will serve the Seattle-Bremerton route, Long said.

The Proxim equipment on the boats connects to Wi-Fi access points known as BeaconPoints from Chantry Networks Inc. in Waltham, Mass. The BeaconPoints offer Wi-Fi connections using the 802.11a standard, which uses the 5-GHz unlicensed band, and the 802.11b/g standards, which operate in the 2.4-GHz band.

To ensure that the two BeaconPoints on board the Klickitat could cover the passenger and crew decks — as required by the contract with the ferry system — Mobilisa used a modeling tool called Airchitect, Ludlow said.

During the operational tests, Mobilisa found that the Wi-Fi signal could penetrate layers of steel to the bottommost car deck, coverage Long said he was pleased with. Larger boats on the Seattle routes will require up to eight BeaconPoints, Ludlow said.

Mobilisa has also outfitted the ferry docks with Wi-Fi BeaconPoints, allowing passengers to use the service while waiting for a boat. The Port Townsend access point also covers restaurants near the ferry dock, Ludlow said. The BeaconPoints are hooked into Chantry's BeaconMaster wireless switch, which allows Mobilisa to control all the BeaconPoints on all the boats from the Mobilisa network operations center in Port Townsend.

The BeaconMaster 130, priced at $12,995, is a Layer 3 switch that allows passengers to roam from dock to boat and to the dock again without initiating a new Wi-Fi session, said Luc Roy, senior director of product marketing and management at Chantry.

The ferry system plans to issue a request for bids on a ferrywide system once the trials end next March, Long said. Because of the infrastructure costs involved, he said he expects any permanent Wi-Fi system to be fee-based.

Although the trial focused on providing Wi-Fi service, Long said he anticipates using the network to support crews, including providing them with wireless voice-over-IP phone service, since cellular coverage for the boats is spotty.

Washington State Ferries may soon not be the only ferry operator in Puget Sound to offer Wi-Fi to its passengers. Aqua Express LLC plans to start high-speed ferry service in October with a 298-passenger catamaran between Seattle and Kingston, and Brian Grantham, general manager of Seattle-based Aqua Express, said his company may offer such service.

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