[opendtv] News: Destination Wi-Fi, by Rail, Bus or Boat

  • From: Craig Birkmaier <craig@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: OpenDTV Mail List <opendtv@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 9 Jul 2004 08:42:09 -0400


July 8, 2004

Destination Wi-Fi, by Rail, Bus or Boat

ABOARD THE KLICKITAT, on the Admiralty Inlet, Wash.

THE Klickitat, a 1927 steel ferry boat plying waters between a 
19th-century port and an island harbor, may seem a quaint way to 
travel - and an unlikely place to get work done. But it may be headed 
for a new frontier in Internet access for commuters.

The ship is the test bed for a plan to offer high-speed wireless 
Internet access on most Washington State ferry runs, serving tens of 
thousands of regular commuters.

  Through a federal grant, the ferry system will roll out an expanded 
test of the Internet service this summer and fall on seven ships 
serving the three busiest runs, covering 50 percent of the system's 
ridership, or about 12 million passenger trips a year. When the first 
of those routes joins the trial, the effort will become the largest 
commuter Internet experiment ever.

As such experiments gather momentum, ready access to e-mail and the 
Web may become increasingly common on the way to and from the office.

  In the United States, nearly six million people commute daily by 
public transportation, according to the Department of Transportation. 
Few operators offer wireless Internet access in their stations and 
terminals - much less on board - even though it is now routinely 
found in many airports, hotels and coffee shops. But trials and 
planning are under way in several countries to determine the 
technical feasibility of offering mobile Internet access, and whether 
commuters will ultimately pay for the privilege.

Providing Internet access on vessels and vehicles is not as simple as 
adding it to a fixed venue, like a restaurant or even a convention 
center. Boats, buses and trains have metal skins or hulls that block 
wireless signals. They move, often at average speeds of 20 to 100 
miles per hour, requiring a system that can rapidly and seamlessly 
hand off a signal. And they could have large numbers of simultaneous 
users, many of whom are already working on laptops during the voyage.

Jim Long, director of information technology for the Washington State 
ferry system, said that boats on the Bainbridge Island-to-Seattle run 
carry 2,600 passengers during each rush-hour trip. Based on his 
observation of commuter work habits, he said, "you could have upwards 
of 300 to 400 at any one time trying to access the Internet - those 
are concurrent users."

  Airlines, too, are looking at making Wi-Fi connections available to 
passengers, and face some of the same challenges. Two competing 
services, Connexion by  Boeing and Tenzing, provide Internet access 
(at $10 to $30 per flight) by connecting to satellites relaying 
service from the ground. But the commuter projects offer the 
potential to become part of a daily routine, and perhaps an incentive 
for some people to abandon commuting by car.

The companies working on commuter service have taken various 
approaches: relying on a combination of cellular towers and satellite 
data links, erecting dedicated antennas in a line of sight or at 
points along the route, or limiting service just to terminals or 
stations on either end of a run.

  The Washington State ferry test is one of several in the United 
States and abroad. Internet access on rail was inaugurated early last 
year on a route between Sweden and Denmark, and regular service is 
beginning on certain train lines in Britain, including the Great 
North Eastern Railway linking London with much of England and 
Scotland (free for first-class passengers, about $9 an hour for 
others). There are also plans to test an Internet service for 
municipal bus riders in Paris.

A Canadian company, PointShot Wireless, is providing Internet service 
for trials on two rail lines in Northern California and another in 
Canada. So far, the PointShot tests, like the Washington State ferry 
project, are free - beyond the user's investment of $50 or so to 
equip a laptop with a Wi-Fi radio.

PointShot typically uses a combination of cellular towers along the 
routes and satellite transmissions to maintain coverage, not always 
easily. "As you move along a route, there's a different level of 
coverage just depending on terrain and tunnels and mountains and 
trees," said Wendy Kennedy, vice president for marketing at PointShot.

Each train's main receiver automatically switches to the best signal 
in terms of speed, cost to the operator and current use on board. But 
to the passenger, "all they see is that they have constant 
connectivity along the route," Ms. Kennedy said. Speeds vary 
constantly but are typically a few times faster than a dial-up modem, 
and are far higher in receiving data than in transmitting it - 
whether summoning a Web page or sending an e-mail message.

  The signal can be relayed from the main receiver (ordinarily atop a 
passenger car) to relay points, or bridges, atop other cars in which 
service is provided. Each bridge corresponds to an access point 
within the car, which distributes the signal to users.

Service can be interrupted by tunnels, or in areas that lack both 
cellular coverage and a line of sight to a satellite. Ms. Kennedy 
said that the company can install servers that store Web pages and 
hold e-mail for transmission when the Internet connection returns, 
making the user unaware of the service gap.

The challenges are even greater when the route in question is water, 
as with the Washington State ferries, which operate half the 
country's ferry journeys.

  The Klickitat, connecting Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula 
with Keystone, a small harbor on Whidbey Island, is hardly teeming 
with commuters. Indeed, not a single passenger could be seen using 
the service during a reporter's crossing. But the vessel offered a 
test bed on which many antennas, frequencies and ideas could be tried 

  The ferry system worked with Mobilisa, a 22-member research firm 
based across the street from the ferry dock in Port Townsend, 40 
miles northwest of Seattle, to obtain a $1 million grant from the 
Federal Transit Administration with the help of Senator Patty Murray, 
Democrat of Washington. The grant has financed the Klickitat trial 
and the coming deployment on other ferries, where the service will 
remain free during testing.

Mobilisa has developed wireless techniques for maintaining a constant 
connection aboard the Klickitat as it moves in and out of range of 
land-based antennas.

Because Keystone is a rural area of the island, there is no Internet 
service on that side of the route, and it is not in a direct line of 
sight with Port Townsend, eight miles away. To overcome this problem, 
Mobilisa has two antennas near the ferry dock in Port Townsend - one 
in direct contact with the ferry, another to relay a signal through 
an intermediate antenna to an antenna on Keystone's dock. Although 
the ferries have regular routes, the antennas on both ship and shore 
have to be placed to allow for deviations due to tides, ship 
rotation, weather and boat traffic.

The Wi-Fi signal is broadcast from a receiver on board to public 
areas at all times, including during the 30-minute crossing. 
Transmitters on the docks serve the car and passenger waiting areas.

  On the reporter's crossing, instant messaging, e-mail, and Web 
browsing worked uninterrupted at speeds comparable to those of 
broadband home Internet connections while the ferry was in transit 
and while docked. Even an Internet voice call worked briefly, 
surprising Dr. Nelson Ludlow, Mobilisa's founder, who said the system 
was not designed to handle voice traffic optimally.

Whatever the technical hurdles, one thing is clear: many commuters 
would have plenty of time to use it. On the Washington ferries, 
walk-on commuters on the busiest routes spend at least 30 minutes on 
board twice a day, in addition to time waiting to board. Drivers may 
spend two to three hours a day near or on the ferries if they travel 
during rush hours. Therein lies the calculation that when it comes to 
Wi-Fi, if you build it, they will come.

  One route in PointShot's trials is the Altamont Commuter Express in 
California, an 84-mile line between San Jose, the hub of the Silicon 
Valley, and Stockton, in the Central Valley. The line reports about 
1,500 daily passengers, roughly 35 percent of them carrying laptops, 
and Ms. Kennedy said that most spend two and a half to five hours a 
day on the train. Wi-Fi service is now available in one car on each 
of the three daily runs and is typically used by 15 to 20 passengers 
on each trip, she said.

  One question in all the trials is what will it will cost to put such 
connections in place more widely, and how that will translate into 
pricing for the Internet user. Many of the trials and initial 
deployments are being underwritten by grants or sponsors, requiring 
little or no financial risk or even outlay by the transit operators. 
Although the next steps are not fully clear, the agencies generally 
plan to leave decisions on what to charge to companies that will bid 
on contracts to operate the services.

Meanwhile, the Wi-Fi offering on the Altamont route has found a ready 
customer in Terry Dickman, who commutes over three hours a day from 
Manteca, south of Stockton, to his job at  Intel in Santa Clara.

  Because he knows he will have a constant but relatively slow 
connection, he prepares beforehand. In an online interview conducted 
during his afternoon commute (his name and e-mail address were 
provided by PointShot) Mr. Dickman wrote that he avoided sites laden 
with graphics that are slow to load, concentrating on work involving 
relatively small text files and e-mail.

Mr. Dickman said that his life had "changed for the better" with the 
Internet at his commuting disposal. "I am more productive at work and 
have a better work/life balance," he wrote. That is significant, 
since he is away from his wife and four children for 12 hours each 
weekday between his commute and his job.

"My boss is very flexible and considers time spent on the train no 
different than time sitting at my desk on my PC," he wrote. "In fact, 
I was working a problem at work online when your e-mail popped up."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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