If your hotel is an antiquated, out-of-service ocean liner that's crossed the Atlantic 1,001 times, it's nice to know that the place has steel walls as much as 3 inches thick. On the other hand, if you get there and want to fire up your Wi-Fi equipped laptop to shop for Titanic memorabilia on eBay, those walls had better not get between you and the nearest access point.
Last yea the IT department at the Queen Mary started to look for a way replace its powerline Internet access system with the Wi-Fi service that 21st-century guests expected.
There were already a few hotspots around the ship, but they were small and only one was open for public use.
Covering all 314 guest rooms and 80,000 square feet of meeting space and restaurants would have proved difficult, because in addition to 3-inch-thick bulkheads -- which no Wi-Fi signal could ever penetrate -- there are many other metal walls that are an inch thick or more, according to Queen Mary IT Systems Analyst Edgar Stevens.
It would have taken more than 90 access points to unwire the ship using conventional technology, Stevens said.
Instead, the hotel chose gear from Ruckus Wireless, which uses flexible beam-forming technology to get around normally daunting obstacles. Using just 33 Ruckus access points, system integrator Hotel Internet Services (HIS) was able to provide Wi-Fi to about 80 percent of the ship, and at least 95 percent of the areas the hotel needed to cover, Stevens said.
The Queen Mary may have been the state of the art in its time, but today it has several disadvantages when it comes to communications. Though a phone line could be pulled to the docked ship, it's too far from the nearest carrier central office to get DSL (digital subscriber line).
Leased T-1 lines are too expensive for the 1.5Mb per second (Mbps) speed they deliver, so the ship's lifeline to the Internet is a microwave line-of-site connection that delivers just over 2Mbps each way. Power is also a problem: Harking from an age when cameras used film and pinochle was a major form of in-room entertainment, the ship has very few electrical outlets.
As for using 3G mobile data in a guest room, the networking team said visitors would have better luck tuning into Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air. Steve Dobbe, vice president of operations at HIS, once had to spend a night on the ship while working on another project and tried to use his laptop and 3G card to quickly check e-mail.
"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.