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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.
The ferries are unwired, just not all of them: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that the usual suspects of location, location, location are bedeviling the addition of Wi-Fi-based Internet access to several ferry runs in Washington State. The ferry system in my home state carries 50 percent of the ferry passenger trips in the U.S. A good half of its routes by traveler numbers have had Wi-Fi from some time, supplied by Parsons.
But it's the last part that's problematic. Siting issues have held up placement of antennas, which in turn led to trickier engineering tasks. Parsons said it was optimistic in its deadlines for adding Wi-Fi, thinking they were ahead of the game; the executive in charge of the project says ruefully they should have stuck with contracted target dates publicly and then been happy if they'd beaten the marks.
The reporter rode some ferries to talk to passengers to see if they were missing the Wi-Fi access. None were. The article concludes with a bit of poetry, following one passenger's lament about the cost of the service, which was too high for his casual uses of email and YouTube: "And there was nothing left to watch on the way home but the shimmering blue water and the seagulls flying overhead."
Parsons seems to have underestimated the difficulty in unwiring one of the longer, popular ferry routes in Washington State: The Washington State Ferries (WSF) have had Wi-Fi on more frequently used routes for three years, starting with a long-running pilot project that Parsons took over last year. When I spoke to the firm that was running the trial in 2004, they made it clear that the curvy passage for the Bremerton-Seattle run--a 55-minute ride--involved several antennas and rights of way issues.
So it's to my surprise that The Seattle Times this morning writes that Bremerton ferry riders are a little peeved that Wi-Fi is on several other major routes, but not theirs. Bremerton is on the Olympic Peninsula, where housing is still cheaper than in Seattle proper. It's not unusual to have this kind of relatively relaxing commute (less so for drivers, who may have to wait for one or more ferries).
Service is now expected for July because Parsons ran afoul of a rule in one place in siting an antenna, and in another case hadn't yet secured roof rights on the tallest building in Seattle. Seems like pretty poor planning. And why do I know something as a reporter that a multi-billion-dollar firm seemed unaware of? There's a missing piece.
The article also cites Parsons's need to get a license from the FCC, which doesn't make sense. Were they purchasing a license? If they already had a licensed frequency they wanted to use for backhaul, the FCC isn't involved.
The three routes noted in the article, the Winslow/Bainbridge Island, Clinton/Whidbey Island, and Kingston runs, carry more than 50 percent of the system's traffic and, by extension, more than 25 percent of the passenger ferry traffic in the US. The WSF carries about half of all ferry rider trips in the US.
The company wouldn't release statistics on use or subscriptions, but here's a tip to all WSF riders: While Parsons charges $29.95 per month for unlimited use just on their system, you can pay $21.95 per month to Boingo Wireless and have access to thousands of locations and the ferry system at no extra charge.
Parsons won the contract to put permanent Wi-Fi service on board the largest ferry system in North America: Washington State Ferries riders represent half the passenger trips in the U.S., and are rivaled closely by British Columbia's ferry operations. They've had Wi-Fi on most popular ferry routes in a prolonged prototype since late 2004, and awarded the contract more than a year after it was originally expected to be put out for bid. Parsons won the service, and its Opti-Fi division has just announced pricing.
They'll charge airport-like rates of $3 for 15 minutes (25 cents thereafter), $7 per 24 hour period, and $30 per month. The WSF email that announces these charges, also notes that free service will switch to paid on Nov. 20. They also point out that Opti-Fi's roaming arrangements provide no-fee access to their partners. The email inaccurately states that iPass customers will pay no additional charge; iPass customers pay for each data session, in fact, but it's at a negotiated rate. T-Mobile and Sprint Wi-Fi users will find their service included. Opti-Fi also lists Boingo Wireless on their partners page; Boingo charges just $22 for unlimited North American roaming. Update: Opti-Fi doesn't include the ferries in their Boingo roaming, according to Boingo Wireless.
The first routes will be the heaviest trafficked: Seattle to Bainbridge Island, and Edmonds to Kingston. These two routes carry about half the passengers, and a large subset of the cars. These two routes take about a half an hour to cross, but car waiting times can run from 30 minutes to 4 hours depending on time of day and complicating factors. Later, Mukilteo to Clinton (a bit north of Seattle over to Whidbey Island) will be added, which comprises another large chunk of passengers and cars; andh Seattle to Bremerton, where the naval shipyard is located, and an increasing number of commuters live in order to work in Seattle and yet afford a house.
WSF is promising some expansions of their quite nice prototyped service. They'll offer a persistent connection, so that you won't need to login again regardless of where you start to stop using the service--some people will surely connect in the terminal, then again on board, and perhaps on arrival. During the test period, the main deck of boats, and car and passenger waiting areas had Wi-Fi; now, car decks, sun decks, holding areas, and ramps will also have coverage. They also promise higher bandwidth than during the two-plus-year test.
This is an accidental boost for T-Mobile in our area, because with the addition of a trial cell/Wi-Fi voice package starting in Seattle, you can couple a $40 or higher voice plan, a $30 per month unlimited GPRS/EDGE/Wi-Fi plan, and $20 per month unlimited voice-over-Wi-Fi together--including the entire ferry system. For frequent ferry riders, this is probably reason enough to switch voice plans. (Note that T-Mobile will allow voice-over-Wi-Fi only at its own managed locations; but you could use Skype while on the ferries.)
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.
Beacon Wi-Fi spreads out service in marinas: The company has marina-based Wi-Fi across 130 marinas on the east coast. There are thousands upon thousands in the U.S. alone, so it's a nice market to tap. People are already throwing their money into a hole in the water, as boat ownership is typically known; add a few dollars a month to that for Internet access, and you don't even notice. Service is as little as $30 per month for a one-year commitment, $40 per month for six months, or $60 a month for each month. Live-on-boards particularly like this kind of service.
Competition is growing. ICOA bought iDock last year and now has 55 marinas unwired. BroadbandXPress (Northwest and B.C.) and Air2Access (Great Lakes) are also building out marina service.
I'm writing these works on a regular run of the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island: I hadn't yet--remarkably--had the chance to try out the regular prototype service that's been deployed on a majority of the Washington State Ferry system's runs. Mobilisa, a company based in Port Townsend, has built and is rolling out the test. A formal RFP will be issued this spring, based on earlier statements, to find a commercial provider that will take over operation, maintenance, and establish fees.
I'm seeing 200 Kbps down and 50 Kbps up, which is pretty good for a moving ferry in a test out in the middle of Elliot Bay. I'm sure Bainbridge commuters are overjoyed: the island is a bedroom community for many downtown workers who managed to buy property out there when it was still considered a bit of a backwater.
The huge Bainbridge Island-Seattle ferry run gets Wi-Fi: The Washington State Ferry system continues to roll out Wi-Fi on board using a system I wrote about in the New York Times last July. The latest news is that they're ready to move from testing into full-scale free (for now) use on the largest run in the system, Bainbridge Island to Seattle. Bainbridge is a bedroom community of sorts for downtown workers, but has a very active life of its own. That one run, which carries 6.5 million passenger trips per year, is larger than entire ferry systems elsewhere in the U.S. The WSF carries 50 percent of the passenger trips in the U.S.
It's not like you're there to relax, or anything: Carnival Cruise Lines has equipped its Carnival Valor ship (not boat, mind you) with Wi-Fi everywhere. They're claiming 100-percent coverage with their Cisco gear, including all rooms and public areas. The press release avoids mentioning costs, which is an odd oversight. Why not just be upfront? It's not like folks won't find out if they ask. On other Carnival ships, Wi-Fi access costs 75 cents per minute or as little as 55 cents per minute if you purchase a 100-minute prepaid card.
The Washington State Ferries (WSF) are about to launch their widescale test: One route had to be dropped because they couldn't secure a mid-run antenna location, and service would have been interrupted for six minutes. The first major route to have onboard Internet access via Wi-Fi is the popular Edmonds-Kingston route starting in a week; then Seattle-Bainbridge Island. These two routes comprise near half the system's traffic. The WSF operates about half the ferry trips in the United States overall.
While earlier, the ferry system had set an time limit on the free test part of this project before they bid out to a private contractor to operate, this article states the service will be free for three months.
Washington state ferries will have Wi-Fi by summer: It's been a while coming, but a small firm in picturesque Port Townsend ran their first full-scale test between that town and nearby Keystone, one of the shorter ferry runs. The system uses 5 GHz (possibly 802.11a) signals from ship to shore, and 802.11a/b/g on board.
By summer, two heavy commuter runs for Bainbridge Island and Kingston will have the service in addition to the Keystone/PT route; by fall, the third heaviest single run, Seattle to Bremerton, will be added. The article lists the actual ferries that will be equipped. Even as a local, I'm not sure how many ferries run or in what rotation on each route, but it appears to be about all of the regular ships.
Nearly half of the ferry systems' 5.1 million passengers handled in the first quarter of 2004--remember, this is one of the largest ferry systems in the world, and the largest by vehicle volume--are served by the first three lines that will be equipped. Another 10 percent more will be added with the fall run.
The first three runs have crossings of about 30 minutes; the Bremerton run is about 60 minutes. Service will be free until fall, when a price for service will be set.
Washington state ferry system moves ahead with trial of Wi-Fi on board with one ship this month: The service should move onto three routes and six ferries by fall covering the most popular commuting routes to and from Seattle: Bremerton (ship yards), Bainbridge Island (bed room community), and Kingston (the Olympic Peninsula's launching pad).
The service is being installed by a firm in beautiful Port Townsend, a gem of a former boom town out on a tip of the Olympic Peninsula. The trial service will be on a ferry route that runs between PT (as it's called) and Keystone, a town on Whidbey Island.
The article says that Mobilisa is trying 802.11a and 802.11g to link back to the mainland. I assume that they will purchase tower rights with line of sight to the predictable, set ferry routes. Since the company and the service is in our vicinity, expect some first-hand reporting when the service rolls out.
Currently the largest ship ever built, the Queen Mary 2 features Wi-Fi throughout: The QM2 not only makes its own fresh water (by distilling sea water) and consumes its own waste with microbes, but the ship was designed with Wi-Fi in mind, offering access throughout. Prices weren't stated, but text SMS messages cost $1.50 each to send, so let's scale up from there.
(Headline an homage to this Onion story.)
Connexion by Boeing enters maritime connectivity market: Owning the airwaves high up in the troposphere isn't enough: the division is entering the maritime connectivity market, too. They should take heed: the press release notes that the industry is $1 billion in size, and there are many established players with entrenched partnerships.
In the cruise ship world, for instance, I traced the relationship of Holland America's on-board cybercafes through several different companies to find that one arm of a firm was selling bandwidth through two intermediaries to another arm. It was on the up and up, but it represents the byzantine structure of those complicated international marketplaces.
High fixed fees are still cheaper than the alternatives: It seems expensive to us landlubbers, but Wheat Wireless's rates are an inexpensive alternative to satellite, which can't deliver the performance, either.
Washington State and B.C. marinas get Wi-Fi: An entrepreneur has unwired 21 marinas. Service can be reached in some places 2 miles out of the marina, and costs $6.95 per day or $39.95 per month. Better yet, the company says they have 1,000 people signed up, although from the article it's hard to tell whether that means "sessions and subscriptions" or just subscriptions. $40,000 per month would be a nice starting point, if it's all monthly revenue.
Although another group, Wheat Wireless's TeleSea division, claimed to have unwired marinas around North America, their coverage map hasn't been updated since 2002 and their press releases end in March 2003. (The company posted a comment below -- has anyone used their service in any marina?)