The Washington State Ferry system has been operating a trial of onboard Wi-Fi for over two years: The system linking ferries and waiting areas with Internet access was supposed to operate for several months under a US Department of Transportation (DOT) grant that allowed Mobilisa, a firm located up in the tiny, marvelous town of Port Townsend, to test and deploy a network. Then, this firm would help write the RFP; they'd be barred from bidding, however. I wrote about this as part of an article on Wi-Fi on buses, trains, and boats for The New York Times back in July 2004. (That article led into the rail-based Internet access article I wrote for this week's Economist, too. Fruition of these services took two years, apparently.)
Parsons has been awarded the contract, according to a mailing from the WSF today, and it's confirmed on Mobilisa's ferry site. The service has been operated at no cost to date, but Parsons will convert it to a fee-based service. The ferry system had no interest in underwriting the service, although they said two years ago they thought the marketing value for a major telecom firm might have been worth offering no-cost access. During the transition, service will remain free, but there will be interruptions as Parsons installs its own gear. Parsons also won the VIA Rail contract in Canada several months ago, and they are actively involved in a number of transportation-related Wi-Fi operations and bids, given their international focus on the transport industry. The email from Parsons promises to increase the service's backhaul bandwidth, and to offer voice over IP in the future.
The WSF handles about half of all passenger trips on ferries in the US--a total of about 25 million passenger trips each year--and a considerable but smaller fraction of all car ferry trips. Half of the WSF passengers are commuters. (Staten Island Ferries has 20m yearly riders, and while they added Wi-Fi to terminals some time ago, I have heard nothing about on-board access on the short hop it covers.)
Typical commuter runs from Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula's Kingston port take about 30 minutes, but wait times can be one to two hours or longer during rush hour. Because the service was designed to cover the extensive car waiting areas, someone could remain in their car and get work done during those long periods while they're just parked.