Full steam ahead for ferry Wi-Fi in Washington state

It's following the lead of a San Francisco ferry that launched Wi-Fi service last week

(see story).

Once testing is completed, Long expects to issue a request for bids in June 2004 for a private vendor to provide the Wi-Fi service, with the ferry system receiving a share of the revenue.

Besides providing high-speed Internet access for passengers, Long said, the Wi-Fi service would allow the ferry system to upgrade cash registers on the boats to networked point-of-sale systems that could process credit card transactions.

The ferry system plans to test the Wi-Fi service on its Seattle-Bremerton (15.45 miles), Seattle-Bainbridge Island (8.6 miles) and Edmonds-Kingston (5.2 miles) runs, Long said.

The test would encompass evaluation of Wi-Fi hardware on the boats and the ship-to-shore wireless backhaul, paying particular attention to signal propagation on those across-the-water circuits. Long added that the ferry system would poll passengers about their experiences with the service and seek their input in developing a pricing model.

Harbor Bay Maritime, which operates ferry service between Alameda, Calif., and San Francisco, became the first ferry company to offer public-access Wi-Fi service to passengers last Friday, with service provided by Wireless Facilities Inc. in San Diego.

Chris Kozup, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., said providing Wi-Fi service to a ferryboat poses technical challenges, particularly with the backhaul links from a moving object, which will require careful engineering and smart antenna design.

Desmond Wheatley, managing director for wireless LAN programs at Wireless Facilities, which intends to bid on the Washington ferry system's Wi-Fi service contract, agreed. He said some of the Washington ferry routes, such as the run from Anacortes, Wash., to Sidney, British Columbia, would require extensive engineering studies because of topographical challenges. The route snakes through mountainous islands, which will require a network combining licensed and unlicensed fixed wireless backhauls to overcome obstacles that interfere with signal propagation. Wheatley said the Alameda ferry service uses a single backhaul to Alameda from the wireless access point on the boat bridged to a proprietary fixed wireless system operating in the 2.4-KHz unlicensed band.

Ken Haase, director of product marketing at Proxim Corp., said he believes that the company's new Tsunami MP.11a fixed wireless gear, which operates in the 5-GHz band, could meet the backhaul challenges of the Washington ferry Wi-Fi network. Haase said the MP11.a provides six miles of range at a raw data rate of 54Mbit/sec. and 13.5 miles of range at 36Mbit/sec.

At the slower speed, with wide-arc antennas at either end of an obstacle-free ferry route, the MP.11a should be able to provide coverage for even the longest of the Washington state ferry routes, Haase said. He added that on the Anacortes-Sidney run, the ferries would have to set up repeaters on the islands to deal with the topography.

Kozup said that once the ferry system develops its architecture and starts to deploy the service, it shouldn't have to worry about revenue, since the system operates in an area with a tech-savvy, captive audience hungry for connectivity.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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