Boingo adds biggest U.S. ferry system to network: On the heels of acquiring the Opti-Fi set of airport Wi-Fi networks from Parsons and ARINC, Boingo Wireless has purchased Parsons's separate business operating Wi-Fi-based Internet access on the Washington State Ferry (WSF) system. WSF handles 26 million passenger rides per year, which is about half of all U.S. passenger ferry volume. (Just north, British Columbia's ferry system handles slightly more riders.) The announcement is slated for Monday.
Boingo already had a roaming relationship in place with Parsons for ferry use, and thus the purchase doesn't affect users of any of Boingo's monthly subscription plans; subscribers still have access folded in to the company's $8 per month handheld/mobile, $22 per month unlimited North America U.S., and $59 per month global (2,000 minutes) plans.
While neither Parsons nor Boingo released statistics on use, I ride ferry on a regular (not routine) basis, and have found the Wi-Fi relied and widely used. WSF runs two big routes that serve Seattle metro commuters: from Bainbridge Island, which unloads passenger after a half-hour run in downtown Seattle (right near Pioneer Square), and from Kingston, which brings riders also after a half hour into Edmonds where they catch express buses. Those two routes represent half of all WSF passenger trips.
Wi-Fi service is available on the majority of WSF's routes, as well as in terminals and in the car waiting areas. For regular rush hour commuters who drive, they may spend over 2 hours round-trip between waiting and the ferry passage, and far more on bad days.
WSF runs on time, however. This may baffle people used to train, bus, and plane schedules, but it's a thing of wonder to watch the ferry workers cast their lines, tie the boats up, and shepherd hundreds of cars and passengers off and on in a matter of minutes, and then return to the bay or sound for the direction or next stop. I'm not saying the system is a miracle, but it's well-tuned. A notable failure, due to initiative-driven cuts in transportation spending, has led to devastating reductions in service to Port Townsend; its regular boats were found to be irreparable. Replacements haven't yet begun to be built for a variety of reasons.
Port Townsend occupies a significant role in the history of Internet access on the ferry system, however. A small firm, Mobilisa, located in "PT" (the affectionate name town residents use) was able to secure a Department of Transportation no-bid contract to unwire the boats. The line it tested service on was the Port Townsend-Keystone run, and it's where I first encountered the service, when I visited PT to write a New York Times article about commuter Wi-Fi: "Destination Wi-Fi, by Rail, Bus or Boat," 8-July-2004. (Mobilisa has been adept at using earmarks to obtain contracts, the Seattle Times reported in a detailed article on 29-December-2007.)
The service launched for production use in late 2004, and on the Bainbridge route in early 2005. The original contract called for an RFP to be issued, and for Mobilisa to operate the network just briefly--perhaps for a year or so, building out service that another firm would take over. Mobilisa was, I was told, specifically barred from bidding on operating the completed network.
Parsons got the contract in late 2006, and slowly extended service to routes that weren't yet covered. At one point, Parsons seemed to be developing a specialty business in building and operating difficult Internet service networks. That line of business is apparently being shed, however, given that only VIA Rail (operated under the Opti-Fi name) apparently remains in its holdings.
Boingo's original plan was to never operate any physical infrastructure. But the opportunity arose a few years ago for it to buy Concourse Communications, which already managed several major airports' Wi-Fi (and sometimes cellular) networks, and it leapt in with both feet. Boingo now runs vastly more large-scale commuter and business traveler nodes than the next largest operator in the space worldwide.