http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/08/technology/circuits/08wifi.html?th July 8, 2004 Destination Wi-Fi, by Rail, Bus or Boat By GLENN FLEISHMAN 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 out. 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." 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