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Aboard the wi-fi ferry

Washington State Ferries passengers may log-on to the Internet on their laptop computers next year knowing they are some of the first in the world to do so aboard a U.S. ferry.

Since June, the Washington state ferries have been testing a wireless fidelity, or wi-fi, system on the Klickitat, a ferry that runs between Port Townsend and Keystone. The testing should ensure that passengers on Washington ferries will have wireless Internet access through their laptops and personal digital assistants while on the water. Jim Long, the state ferries information technology director, said this is the first time a ferry system has attempted to install such technology.

“We’re excited about the technological possibilities,” he said.

Wi-fi is a service that already exists for some Whidbey Island residents who commute on the ferry. George Henny, advanced technologies manager for Bayview-based Whidbey Telecom, said his company installed a wi-fi system at the Clinton ferry dock about a year ago that allows the use of appropriately equipped computers from the dock to nearly a mile up Highway 525. Henny said the system has been in place for more than a year and is free to Whidbey Telecom Internet customers.

But that signal does not extend onto the ferry boats. So this year, under contract with the state ferry system, Mobilisia — a Port Townsend software development company — was hired to develop wireless Internet for ferry boat passengers. The company has built and is testing a wi-fi system for use aboard the Keystone ferry Klickitat.

How does it work

Antennas at the Keystone and Port Townsend ferry landings transmit an Internet access signal between each other, which is picked up by antenna wires aboard the Klickitat. The omni-directional antenna allows ferries to deviate from their normal path — such as small boats — and still receive a signal.

Passengers can then log into the high-speed Internet signal to browse e-mail, the Internet or anything else they might do at an office, said the state ferries’ Long.

“It improves the ridership experience,” he said.

Besides transmitting to the ferries, Long said anyone within sight of the antenna— including those in ferry parking lots at the terminals — can have wireless access as well. To receive the signal, computers must have built-in wi-fi cards.

To log-on aboard the Klickitat or other ferry, users create a Mobilisa account with a user identification and password, said Kenna Pope, the media coordinator for Mobilisa.

The installation of the test equipment and software has not come cheap and it is at taxpayer expense. Washington State Ferries paid Mobilisa about $800,000 from a Federal Transportation Department research grant to do the work. The company has been developing the wi-fi system for more than a year, said Mobilisa’s Pope. Mobilisa employees finished the installation of the system on the Klickitat in June.

Mobilisa will also install wi-fi systems on the three busiest ferry routes later this year, Edmonds to Kingston, Bainbridge Island to Seattle and Seattle to Bremerton.

If the system proves workable on a wider scale, telecom businesses such as T-Mobile, Whidbey Telecom and Verizon will have the chance to take over the wi-fi system on the ferries, Long said. He said a request for proposal, or RFP, will allow them to bid on providing the service. Once the company takes over, passengers will pay a fee to use the wi-fi service. He said it’s up to the companies to decide on the price of the service, but he said studies suggest a range of $19 to $29 per month.

The winning bidder have the job of outfitting the other state ferries and building the antennas. It’s at that time, a wi-fi system may be built on less used routes, such as the Mukilteo to Clinton route or Port Townsend to Keystone route, where the test wi-fi will be removed, Long said.

There seems to already be a demand for the service. Long said of those who received e-mails about the service, between 85 and 90 percent of the respondents said they would use it.

The Mukilteo to Clinton ferry route was not originally considered appropriate for a wi-fi connection, due to the brevity of the 15-minute runs aboard those ferries. However, Long said the route could prove to be profitable.

“Once it goes to RFP, given the volume of the route, I can see it as a route they could do,” Long said.

Whidbey Telecom’s Henny said wi-fi on the ferries is a great idea. If his company bids to provide the service, there are some things he would consider before expanding the service to the ferry and Mukilteo. He said many of the large backups in the summer at Mukilteo are tourists rather than commuters, thus are typically not trying to work online.

“One has to look at the demographics and the greatest possibility for success,” Henny said.

Even if his company does not bid on the wi-fi, he said he anticipates Whidbey Telecom would keep the service at the Clinton terminal.

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