Washington ferry goes wireless

Officials at Washington State Ferries plan to officially kick-off Wi-Fi service for passengers on their high-traffic Seattle routes next month, said Jim Long, information technology director for the state-owned ferry system.

Long said ferry system officials will officially launch Wi-Fi service Feb. 3 on the eight-mile long Seattle-Bainbridge run, which carries about 6.5 million passengers annually. Long added the service has been available during a test period since the beginning of January.

Ferry system officials installed Wi-Fi service on boats serving five-mile routes north of Seattle last year. They started service on the Port Townsend-Keystone run about 50 miles north of Seattle last June and turned on Wi-Fi on the Edmonds-Kingston route, 18 miles north of Seattle, last December.

Long said ferry system officials tapped Mobilisa, based in Port Townsend, to help overcome the technical challenges of adapting short-range — 100 feet to 300 feet — Wi-Fi technology to provide service to the ferry boats.

Mobilisa developers worked for the ferry system under a $1 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration secured with the backing of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash).

Nelson Ludlow, Mobilisa's chief executive officer, said developers had to address the metal structures of the boats, which are less Wi-Fi friendly than the numerous coffee ships in Seattle that provide the service.

Ludlow said Mobilisa officials used a software program to determine the number and location of access points needed on the boats. They found the numbers to be two per boat on the northern runs and up to six per boat on the Seattle-Bainbridge route.

Mobilisa uses a Chantry Networks Wi-Fi switch installed at its headquarters in Port Townsend to control all the Wi-Fi access points on the boats, Ludlow said. The boat access points provide service under the 802.11a and 802.11b standards.

Service to and from the boats is provided by point-to-multipoint wireless gear from Proxim, operating in the unlicensed 5 GHz band, Ludlow said. Mobilisa developers built their own algorithms to ensure a smooth transition between the Proxim systems installed on the boats and the shore stations.

Ludlow said Mobilisa developers proved in tests that 5 GHz unlicensed wireless equipment has a range of 20 miles over water. He said they plan to use the experience with the ferry Wi-Fi network to develop a system that could provide low-cost, wideband data service among ships in a Navy battle group. They will work under a research and development contract awarded by the Naval Sea System Command.

Long said Washington State Ferries officials plan to offer free Wi-Fi service on the three runs it has equipped at least through this April, at which point the ferry system plans to issue a request for proposals for a private operator to take over the service. He said officials at the University of Washington said a study performed by school analysts estimated that ferry commuters would be willing to pay between $19 and $39 per month for Wi-Fi service.

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