WLANs at Sea

So you’ve just spent half a million dollars on a sweet little schooner. You’re lounging dockside, watching the sun set. What’s missing from this picture?

Oh, yeah. You’ve got to check your e-mail.

Some half-dozen firms are banking on the idea that the recreational-boating crowd, and perhaps even some commercial boaters, will find it useful to surf the Web whenever they take a break from sailing the seas.

“Boaters historically have not had broadband available, and in many cases have not even had dialup available at their docks,” said Joe Kerrigan, a cofounder of iDockUSA. “The advent of wireless makes it possible to bring the Internet to them.”

iDockUSA is one of several firms whose business plan calls for the installation of 802.11 hotspots at marinas around the nation. Kerrigan figures the boating audience is an ideal target market for Wi-Fi. “Most boaters are trying to get away from it all when they go to their boats, but there are segments of the market such as those who live aboard their boats, and they need to have the Internet on their boats,” he said. “Beyond that, we see a lot of business owners and IT professionals who still feel compelled to be connected even when they are on their boats.”

Kerrigan is not the only one to explore this formula. Coastal Wave, the Global Nautical Network, TeleSea and a number of other firms all are pursuing similar business plans. Analysts say they may have hit upon a winning formula for 802.11 usage.

“It’s quite a good idea, first because people with boats have money. That’s kind of a general rule,” said Eddie Hold, a wireless analyst with research firm Current Analysis in Sterling, Va. Moreover, he suggested, dockside Wi-Fi fits well with the existing boating culture, in which “when you get back to the harbor, suddenly you are back to civilization.”

Some firms are even more ambitious: They are looking to take wireless Internet connectivity beyond the marina and out onto the high seas. At TeleSea, a division of Wheat Wireless Services Inc., CEO Forrest Wheat says that by using a combination of technologies he can propagate a wireless signal some 30 miles out to sea, and he believes boaters will pay to get that signal. “People who pay $1 million and up for a boat — they want to have good communications,” he said. In addition to checking e-mail, they may have more serious uses in mind, including access to Internet-based maps and weather reports.

When boaters do get back to the marina, he said, it is practically a given that they would want 802.11 Internet access. Simply put, “everybody wants access to the Internet, and you can’t string a wire out to a boat,” he said.

While the market for such services is still small, the competition is already heating up. Ohio-based Coastal Wave for instance has assembled a network of more than 10 tower sites spanning a 50-mile radius, creating one of the largest 802.11b networks in northwest Ohio. Among other services, the firm offers deployed-wireless access to many marinas in that region.

Still, vendors in this arena will need to overcome certain technological challenges and business-model hurdles on the road to future successes.

“You would think that a Wi-Fi transmission would be better over water, but in fact there is more opportunity for interference over water,” said Kerrigan. In particular, marinas are practically littered with obstructions. “There may be thousands of aluminum sailboats masts that are right in the line of sight.”

TeleSea’s Wheat agreed that the complexities in the nautical environment can complicate a wireless deployment, but he added that the same can be said of almost any other environment. “Any time you go wireless, you are going to have propagation problems,” he said.

In fact, the greater challenge may lie have to do with salesmanship — or selling to men on ships, as the case may be.

Unlike airport business travelers, the majority of whom have some 802.11 experience, “probably 80 percent of the customers in our business are new to Wi-Fi,” said Kerrigan. Thus, in addition to deploying networks and signing service contracts, “We also are educating. We are installing cards in peoples’ computers and explaining to them the limitations of Wi-Fi.”

That being the case, he suggested, the long-term winners in this field will be those who can not just deliver a signal, but can also deliver a high level of service to go with it.

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