Government Technology

Wireless Crossing


January 20, 2005 By

Serving more than eight counties in Washington state and the province of British Columbia, Canada, the Washington State Ferries (WSF) system includes 10 routes and 20 terminals served by 29 vessels.

To improve the ride for the more than 75,000 Puget Sound residents commuting to work or school via ferries during the week, the WSF worked with Mobilisa and Chantry Networks to implement and test the Wireless Over Water (WOW) system, said Jim Long, director of information technology for the WSF.

"Our riders are, for lack of a better term, basically captive -- at least while they're on the vessel," he said. "Many of our passengers arrive 20 to 30 minutes before the vessel sails. On our San Juan Islands route, our international route, some people arrive two hours early, so this would be a way for them to surf the Web and do their e-mails."

In the Central Sound, Long said some vessels transport 2,600 people, many of whom are professionals, and wireless access would help them with productivity during their commute. Many professionals also live in the West Sound and commute to Seattle.

"In their cases, some are billable hours, so they can extend their hours -- I say they can make partner faster -- things like that," Long said. "Or people like me, running an IT department here, I can take my laptop home with me, and on the boat I can deal with the administrative e-mails -- the ones I never get to."

The wireless network has gone live on the M/V Klickitat, which serves the Port Townsend to Keystone route. The network will eventually be installed on three major ferry routes and is expected to serve 300 to 400 simultaneous users.

Nest Egg

U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Mobilisa helped the WSF secure an $800,000 research and development grant. Murray serves as the highest-ranking Democrat (and is the former chair) of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee.

Long said the grant contains two main provisos: First, the wireless network must maintain continuous connectivity shore-to-shore. Second, it must improve the ridership experience.

"In that little egg are things like performance, being able to prioritize, types of traffic, limiting 'hogs,' if you will -- people who try to download a 300 MB file while other people are trying to answer a 20-byte e-mail," Long said.

"If all this comes together and works, which it will -- which it does -- then we float an RFP out to the private sector to outfit all of our vessels, all of our terminals, all of our decks."

Long said a private company will run the service, and the WSF would collect a royalty, similar to how onboard food concessions are handled.

Sign Me Up

The WSF wants to offer a wireless experience ubiquitous to the user to eliminate worries about which wireless ISP to subscribe to.

WOW users can log on to the network so long as their PDA or laptop is outfitted with a wireless card or antenna, and they have an account with a third-party provider, such as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, Long said. Subscriptions to such services are readily available and typically can be paid for on a per-day or per-month basis.

"Cost is totally independent of the infrastructure," said Luc Roy, Chantry Networks' senior director of product management. "Mobilisa can create a unique service set identifier [SSID] for every service provider -- T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless, Verizon.

"It also has unique administrative domains for each of these SSIDs," he continued. "We can actually work with T-Mobile's Web site where, if you were a wired user, you just enter your name and password; and if you don't [have an account], you can sign up for one."


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