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Advanced Wi-Fi sinks old ship's network barriers

Stephen Lawson | Sept. 2, 2009
Ruckus beam-forming access points got around metal walls on the Queen Mary floating hotel

"I was standing at the porthole trying to hang my computer out the window, trying to get enough signal to pull in an e-mail, and I couldn't even do it," Dobbe said. "With that metal hull, there just isn't any cell service inside that ship."

The new in-room Wi-Fi service replaced a wired system, installed more than two years ago by HIS, that required hotel guests to check out a powerline-to-Ethernet adapter using a credit card. They had to plug that adapter into an electrical socket and plug an Ethernet jack on the other end into a laptop. This was inconvenient and frustrated guests who were used to simply hopping onto a Wi-Fi network, said Gary Patrick, president and CEO of HIS. It also left out iPhones and other Wi-Fi devices that don't have Ethernet jacks.

The Ruckus ZoneFlex 2942 802.11g access points that HIS installed on the Queen Mary have a built-in array of antennas that can direct the Wi-Fi signal around obstacles and interference, according to the company. HIS installed Ruckus ZoneDirector 1025 controllers with Power Over Ethernet capability to manage the access points, running standard Ethernet cables to most of the devices. In a few areas where cables couldn't be pulled, they linked the devices in a wireless mesh, Patrick said.

The connectivity challenges on board force the Queen Mary to throttle users' speed on the wireless LAN. Guests pay US$9.99 per day for a 512Kbps connection intended for e-mail and casual browsing, and $10.99 for 1.5Mbps. There are also hourly and weekly options. In the two months since the new Wi-Fi network was installed, it's been a hit: Even before the hotel started to advertise the new service, guests found it, asked about it, paid and logged on, doubling the number of Internet users from when the powerline system was the only option, Stevens said.

For all its headaches, the old ship has some advantages as a place to roll out a network, Dobbe said. The same steel barriers that complicated the Wi-Fi deployment also prevent all other radio interference. It was easy to install Ethernet cables down the hallways because the ceilings are so low that no one ever needed a ladder. And there were some unexpected finds in the old liner.

"There's all these kind of weird, hidden compartments, which is good for when you're trying to find a place to put a switch," Dobbe said.

In addition to all the Queen Mary's antique fittings, past glories and rumored ghosts, there's a bit of LAN history, too, according to Stevens, the on-board systems analyst. When he was hired in 2004, there were still remnants of a Token Ring network left behind by the Walt Disney Co. when it gave up its lease in the 1990s, he said. The IT staff kept some hubs in place as a tribute to a bygone era of networking.


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