Among ferry riders seeking WiFi service, life is like a box of chocolates. Some days you get the good bite and others you get the box filled with someone else’s half-eaten rejects or just a bunch of empty wrappers. Just two days ago, on July 31, the M/V Tacoma Seattle-to-Bainbridge ferry, serving the busiest (and most profitable) route in the system, lost WiFi service for most of the day.
Our Washington State Ferry (WSF) system, carrying more vehicles (10 million) and passengers (22 million) annually than any other fleet in the world, contracts with Boingo Wireless to provide WiFi to its customers, many of whom are commuters looking to maximize their time by working on the boat. Even many sporadic users, like me, want WiFi during ferry rides. And even the sporadic users know that their paid Boingo subscription will not necessarily deliver. Maybe log-in won’t work, or maybe service will fail at any given moment.
Boingo User Complaints
But don’t take my word for it. Following a modest request for feedback about wireless service experiences on the ferries, I was deluged with unhappy Boingo user comments. Many are unpublishable, but virtually all were united in their frustration with Boingo. Here is a pretty typical remark made by a Bainbridge Island resident:
“Once upon a sad and frustrating time I had to rely on Boingo for mid-sound business communications. I got access about one in twenty attempts—that access so glacially slow as to be completely pointless. My loathing is freshly stoked by Boingo’s attempted hijacking of my mobile devices whenever we’re on board or near the terminals.”
Other commenters also complained of Boingo overriding their cell service:
“I live in NYC but travel to BI several times a year. I just returned from BI this week. I have been aware of Boingo each crossing and especially when leaving last time waiting in a car before boarding time. For the first few minutes my 4G cell service was active to my surprise. Either coincidence or not, when I saw the ferry approaching my 4G was no longer available having suddenly been overridden by Boingo. This was disconcerting since I was ‘forced’ to join or not have ‘full’ access to my cell phone. I travel all over the world and to date the only place I have encountered not being able to continue using my cell if I choose is on the ferry between Seattle and BI. Interestingly, I discussed this with friends there who were equally upset at WSDOT for closing off our cell access while waiting to board and crossing. Is this even legal?”
Dozens of respondents said they had discontinued their use of Boingo because it simply wasn’t reliable. The only positive thing noted about Boingo, by one person, was that their customer service was good:
“Re: Boingo on the ferries: I hate it. I signed up for the minimum amount because I needed internet access one evening, but the message I got was that it wasn’t available for that particular crossing (SEA>BI). I tried on a later date with no success again, and then found out I was billed just for trying. Customer service was good, though, when I called to get a refund.”
But another Bainbridge customer said this: “I called Boingo customer service and their advice was to ‘move to a different part of the ferry’!”
I subscribe to the monthly Boingo plan and use it almost every day. It is extremely hit and miss. There seem to be three different problems:
- The connection between the boat and the Internet is intermittent. I had a tech support rep tell me that it using a fixed path system and if the boat moves off the expected path the signal is lost.
- When it works, the connection is very heavily overloaded on the busy commuter sailings. 7:55 am departing BI is barely usable while the 9:35 am sailing is much better.
- The setup in the BI ferry terminal is frequently broken. It does not have to contend with a moving boat, so it should work without issue. I’ve watched it numerous times simply not respond to connection requests.
One former Boingo customer found herself a solution:
I’ve had all the experiences cited here with the same response from tech support—something wrong with your computer, reboot, change your ips, on and on. Nothing works, not even the new computer. Profoundly slow, intermittent connections, good in the parking lot, drops you once the ferry starts moving, extremely frustrating waste of time fiddling with it, trying to get on, trying to send email, trying to do anything productive—all impossible. The solution that does work is eliminating Boingo altogether and getting personal hotspot. Works like a charm, all the way across.
Boingo’s Response to Complaints
Boingo is well aware of its WSF service problems. A “WSF Tip Sheet” acknowledges the following on the Seattle-to-Bainbridge and Seattle-to-Bremerton runs:
On-site testing and customer experiences have shown that both boat to shore and boat to terminal connections are weak. We’re working to upgrade the radio technology to improve connection time and speed.
I spoke at length with Boingo’s Corporate Communications Manager Katie O’Neill. She went out of her way to make herself available and to provide friendly, prompt, and detailed responses to my questions.
Technical Challenges of Ferry Travel
I asked O’Neill why Boingo wireless service seems to be more reliable at several thousand feet in the air on fast-moving planes than on the WSF. She said, “In-flight networks typically deliver a slower connection to fewer users simultaneously, meaning they can operate with limited capacity. It’s the difference between serving 20 people simultaneously (plane) and 200+ people simultaneously (ferries).”
O’Neill further explained the technical challenges of the ferry environment: “Point-to-point wireless, which is how we get the Internet to the ferry itself, is ideal for building-to-building backhaul, but when one object is moving in three dimensions like a boat in heavy rain, moving up and down in significant swells, etc., it can create the occasional ship-to-shore connection issues. . . . The service today is exponentially better than it was 2 and 3 years ago, in large part because of advances in the wireless industry that we’ve been able to integrate into the network.”
Cell Phone “Hijacking”
Regarding the issue of Boingo “hijacking” people’s cell phones, O’Neill told me that it is not Boingo but “a design feature that Google and Apple have built into the operating system, for better or worse.”
She continued, “All phones today are set to remember any Wi-Fi network one has successfully connected to previously. (iPhone says right in the Wi-Fi settings page that ‘Known networks will be joined automatically.’) Once the phone recognizes a network, it will try to connect to that network every time it sees it. In our home and workplaces, this is a good thing and lets us use our private networks for our Internet needs instead of consuming valuable cellular data. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple in public hotspots. Because public hotspots usually have a page where you have to accept terms and conditions, once one has successfully connected one will continue to connect, but that intercept page will prevent that person from getting to the Internet.”
“The best way to avoid this is to remove the network name in question from the Wi-Fi settings. In Android devices, there is an advanced settings section that will allow users to see this list of previously connected networks so they can opt to forget it. It’s buried a little bit, but once one is in Wi-Fi settings, the menu button will provide advanced options. In Apple devices, it’s less obvious. One actually has to be near the network itself so that it shows up in their Wi-Fi settings list, so one can then choose to forget it. There is a blue circle with a chevron for each network on the right side of the list. Touch this button instead of the network name. At the top of the network profile is a “Forget this network” button. Once one has forgotten that network, a person will have the same experience they have with other networks; the phone can prompt whether you want to connect, and you can choose to cancel that prompt,” explained O’Neill.
Improvements to the WSF WiFi Network
O’Neill pointed out that in February of this year Boingo quadrupled its available bandwidth for users. One user had this to say about the bandwidth increase: “They say they quadrupled the bandwidth. I don’t think they realize that likely went from reasonable for 4 people to 16, and it should be more like 100.”
O’Neill told me that Boingo regularly upgrades its equipment and is set to install new antennas “so new and advanced they’re still being manufactured.” She said that the company’s network monitoring shows that its capacity is “more than adequate” to meet customer need, even during peak usage morning and afternoon commute times.
When I brought up the abundance of customer complaints and my own low ratio of success versus failure with Boingo service, O’Neill apologized for my negative experiences but maintained that the quality of the network and user experience has “increased dramatically over the last year and a half” and that complaints have gone down. She added, “But for a commuter service where users connect each and every day, any glitch in the service is more noticeable simply because they connect every day. One bad day erases weeks or months of good days; it’s the nature of perception.”
WSF’s Stance on Boingo
I asked Washington State Ferries Communications Director Marta Coursey about WSF’s satisfaction with Boingo. She enumerated the upgrades Boingo has made to improve WiFi service, echoing much of what O’Neill told me.
Coursey said, “In July 2012, Boingo upgraded the Wi-Fi access points (APs) on the passenger decks of the Wenatchee, Tacoma, and Puyallup and added four more APs on board each vessel to increase the number of simultaneous users supported, since the growth in mobile device users had pushed up against prior capacity limitations during peak periods.”
“In February, 2013, Boingo upgraded the five mainland backhaul links between the relay points in Puget Sound, effectively quadrupling the bandwidth available to ferry customers. This included a redundant link Boingo implemented for failover to improve the reliability of the entire network.”
“Boingo has just completed a $90,000 upgrade to both Bremerton and Bainbridge routes with new radios and multiple antennas that will increase speed and signal,” concluded Coursey.
Pointing out widespread customer dissatisfaction with Boingo service, I asked Coursey if WSF has considered other wireless service options. She replied, “WSF considered other systems, such as satellite, but Boingo was able to provide higher bandwidth at a lower cost.”
Regarding free Internet access, which many customers expressed a desire for and which is becoming increasingly common in public places around the world, I asked Coursey if free WiFi is something WSF might provide. She responded, “At this time, free WiFi is not under consideration.”
Need assistance with Boingo? Call their 24/7 troubleshooting hotline: 800-880-4117.
Images by Julie Hall, Phillip Capper.