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Wi-Fi at sea

Is 802.11b the best WLAN standard for shipping? Guest columnist Steve Harding isn't so sure.

Steve Harding served as an electrotechnical officer with Shell Tankers for seven years, and subsequently worked as specialist investigator for the UK Radiocommunication Agency and specialist in satellite navigation, ship tracking systems and GMDSS with the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency. He has set up his own consultancy, SUVAN Marine, and can be contacted at steve@3gmarine.co.uk.


I'm not necessarily sure IEEE 802.11b, fast emerging as the wireless communications data networking standard on land and airplanes, is the best option for shipping.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the technology. However its pedigree is in office-based LANs, meaning that among other things, its admittedly wide bandwidth comes at the price of high power consumption. Hardly an issue in the office or with other mobile applications such laptops in Starbucks, but an absolute showstopper where there is no prospect of any stable power supply, as is the case over large areas of a ship.

A solution could be at hand. An alternative networking standard IEEE 802.15 has recently been ratified. According to its sponsors, equipment built to this standard provides a low (up to 250 kbps) data rate solution with multi-month to multi-year battery life and very low complexity.

The technology's designers have adopted a procedure implemented by Marconi to maintain communications with ships over long distance with limited range equipment. In other words, mesh networks where each node ship is in direct communication with its immediate neighbors to relay data from point to point.

Should a single node fails for any reason -- including the introduction of a strong RF interference -- messages are automatically routed through alternate paths. And the mode nodes there are, the better the network becomes.

This technology could provide robust, low-cost wireless data networks onboard ships, notably in those areas where power supplies will always be an issue.

Applications that come to mind include controlling valves, monitoring temperature gauges -- including those actually installed in tanks, and slow-scan, portable CCTV located around the ship on arrival in port.

And why not fit them to containers as well? This would be great news for the ship owner: a guaranteed wireless network and the means to monitor conditions in each box through remote sensors, and all for free!

Seattle

Now I've never visited Seattle, but presumably it was not happenstance that David Angel, creator of Frasier, selected the city as the home of television's most enduring fictional character, Frasier Crane.

Certainly it has spawned more than its fair share of global icons: Boeing in aviation, a certain Bill Gates in IT and Starbucks in coffee, to name but three.

If history is any guide, and it usually is, what happens today in Seattle sets the agenda for the world tomorrow. When was the last time you flew in a non-Boeing aircraft, used a computer not using a Microsoft product or were forced to survive those tedious shopping trips without decent coffee?

True, there are upstarts and imitators, but no one thus far has seriously dented Seattle's triumvirate's power base in their key market sectors. Goodness only knows then what would happen if they ever acted in unison.

Actually, when it comes to short-range wireless, they are. Not directly, of course. Any sniff of an alliance between the likes of Microsoft and Boeing would tweak the tail of even the densest official at the US Federal Trade Commission. Rather, this is a meeting of minds, a kind of symbiosis, if you like, that ensures mutual self-interest.

Before explaining further, I need to turn the clock back a little.

Wireless office

Many moons ago, 1990, I think, I was at the butt end of yet another office upheaval. (Why is that managers believe the only way of proving their omnipotence is through subjecting staff to interminable games of musical chairs?)

As I packed my cases in a familiar -- but never rehearsed -- procedure, the IT engineers commenced dismantling the flooring in a largely futile attempt to locate the cable ports precisely where the idiots in charge had directed they be this week. Having reached the limit of tolerance, and in my undying belief that I am an extremely qualified advice-giver, I opined:

"Are we not supposed to be the Department of Innovation? Why not use this as an opportunity to implement a wireless network instead of continually messing around with all this cable?"

A big joke for all those present, but I received £25 for my troubles, more than I'd ever made before -- or since, come to that -- for any of my grand ideas!

To be fair, wireless LAN technology wasn't sufficiently mature 13 years ago to throw away the cable. But it is now and at least I can take some satisfaction from knowing I was right, and no satisfaction at all for not getting into the business and making my fortune!

Nonetheless, using wireless for networking is not without drawbacks. If you can use wireless to connect a workstation to its server and the Internet in the office, you can equally access that server using a PC outside the office.

Coffee shop Wi-Fi

However, make this feature a virtue, give it a fancy name. Call it Wi-Fi, and it becomes a business opportunity.

Stand up, Starbucks, and take a bow.

This is a company that appreciates its customers, just like Frasier Crane use the coffee to socialize and conduct business. Unlike McDonalds, whose seats in my experience are specifically designed to give anyone hemorrhoids within ten minutes, Starbucks makes a virtue of encouraging people to dwell providing comfort, books, newspapers and, in the last year of so, Wi-Fi hot spots to allow access to the Internet.

And all for the inflated price of a cup of coffee, for the time being at least.

The specific technology selected by Starbucks for its Wi-Fi service, and that most commonly used in the office is know as IEEE 802.11b, and operates in the 2.4 GHz band. Which is not particularly important.

What is important though is the impact of this decision on wider society, including the other members of Seattle's triumvirate.

To state the obvious, before the Starbucks' customer can access the Internet, their laptop and software must apply compatible technology. With Bill Gates increasingly committing to wireless-based applications, he would be a fool not to recognize those who use Starbucks' are often the movers and shaker. He's no fool, and nor are the other principal players in the PC market and Starbucks compatibility is increasingly provided as standard. Nor will Boeing take kindly to any criticism from those now accustomed to Internet with their coffee being denied the service in Business Class. In short, no alliance, but the Seattle choir is most certainly singing off the same hymn sheet.

A mass standard

You now have to search hard to find anything or anyone who has implemented operational, i.e., commercial, Wi-Fi using technology other than the "Starbucks standard." It has reached critical mass in the market. This is clearly beneficial in that mass production levers dramatic fall in 802.11b hardware costs, with global compatibility ensured.

Nonetheless, it also brings problems. Technology development is effectively sterilized. Even if arguably superior wireless networking technology comes along -- great bandwidth, range, etc. -- it has little or no chance of successfully penetrating the market. Who in their right mind is going to build hardware that is useless in Starbucks, or in a Boeing aircraft, or on the Amtrak train?

More important perhaps, the perceptions of IT decision-makers towards technology become increasingly blinkered.

If there's one thing that exercises the minds of management more than an inability to move desks in an office, it is looking a fool in the eyes of peers. How many owners would now be prepared to stand up and boast at a shipping industry function that they bought Betamax video players for all their vessels?

Far safer then, when the decision comes along whether to install a wireless network on a ship, to take the risk free option and follow the sheep to Seattle. If it's good enough for Starbucks, it must be good enough for any ship!

802.15

"Lots of potential" -- exactly the same words that followed me out the door when left school. Sadly, little of my potential was realized, so what future for IEEE 802.15?

Certainly, you'll not find it in the laptop used by Frasier Crane at his local Starbucks, no on the flight to Boston to visit his son. On this measure alone, 802.15 is doomed to fail in the face of the all-powerful 802.11b.

Now those who read these columns regularly will appreciate that normally I champion market forces and balk at the thought of shipping plowing its own furrow, particularly in communications. As a rule, if a technology works in an office, invariably it will be orders of magnitude superior to anything specifically designed for use at sea, with its orders of magnitude inflated price, particularly when mandated by IMO. Thus I should shed no tears for the losers in short-range wireless standards battle.

This time, I'm going against my own ideology.

For once, it may be appropriate for shipping to specialize and adopt a short-range wireless standard of its own, or at least apply a standard not finding favor elsewhere.

Certainly, I'd be wary throwing everything at 802.11b. While no one wants to buy another Betamax, worse is equipping an organization with Windows 3.1 just prior to the release of NT. As Frasier would, I'm listening, and I think you should too.


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