Having free Wi-Fi is a great adjunct to getting things done on the daily commute if you're a ferry passenger. And while Sydney Ferries suggests the service has some limitations, in practice it seems more like an all-you-can-eat buffet, albeit with a fairly slow-moving queue.
Following trials last year, Sydney Ferries earlier this week announced that it would be offering free Wi-Fi access on a fair number of its ferries around Sydney Harbour. (It isn't a universal option by any means: services along the Parramatta River, for instance, are excluded, but 70% of total ferry services are covered.)
According to the ministerial press release, the only limitations are that you can only log on twice a day (once before midday and once afterwards), can only use the service for half an hour, and can't download more than 30MB in a session. All sensible moves to stop the service being exploited by torrent-hungry customers, but just how effectively can you deliver Wi-Fi on a moving boat?
To put this to the test, I took a quick ferry trip to Manly and back today to see how well the service worked in practice. I chose Manly because it has a regular and frequent service; it was where the trial ran, so any early glitches should have been dealt with; it's a fairly lengthy journey by Sydney ferry standards; and it ventures right out across the heads, thus taking it further away from 3G coverage. Here's what I discovered on the good ship Collaroy.
On the ferry itself, all the signage indicates that the Wi-Fi option is available on the upper deck. In practice, however, I was able to log onto the hotspot on my BlackBerry Torch while standing at Circular Quay waiting for the ferry to depart, so that guideline might be more best practice than an absolute requirement. (As a general rule, tourists on ferries congregate downstairs for outside views, so upstairs is a better bet anyway if you've seen it all before and want to get some work done.)
Logging on is very straightforward: just connect to the TOMIZONE @ Sydney Ferries hotspot and then click your way through an agreement screen. You're not asked to supply an email address or any other login identifier, which turns out to be significant. While the publicity announcements all claim a 30-minute time limit, the actual login screen suggests 45 minutes, and (in my experience at least) it's the latter figure that's accurate. None of the Wi-Fi equipped journeys run much longer than 30 minutes anyway, so this should be ample time even with a bit of on-the-quay waiting.
Being a slightly paranoid geek, I'd taken a number of Wi-Fi enabled devices on my trip to test if they worked. My laptop PC, BlackBerry Torch, aging iPod Touch and Droid 2 all connected pretty much without drama. (The iPod never seemed to get from the login screen to the sponsored splash page that appears when you successfully connect, but I was able to use Wi-Fi services after doing that.)
As is my general practice when using public transport, I ran a series of tests using Speedtest.net. This isn't a perfect option, and if anything tends to overestimate available speeds, but it's a fast and useful way of getting a ballpark figure. Here's the three results screens: one parked at Circular Quay, one out near the heads, and one at Manly.
Overall, the performance is pretty consistent: the lower download speed on the third test is largely explained because I was running a background download to see what happened when the 30MB limit got hit (I don't think that would have happened with just routine work tasks). Overall download speeds are at the low end of what you can theoretically get with a 3G dongle, but quite close to what you often get in practice.
On these kinds of speeds, you can fairly easily browse sites, read email and leave Dropbox running, as I did. I even managed to watch a one-minute YouTube video with only minimal stuttering. I only just managed to complete 30MB of downloads in a single journey, and that was through conscious effort.
I was testing outside peak hour on a ferry that seemed more than three-quarters empty and without interference from rain, so it seems reasonable to assume that this is very much a best-case scenario. Regular 9-to-6 workers would undoubtedly face lower speeds due to competition.
So what happens if you exceed the time or data limits? All the promotion suggests that's it until the clock goes past midday, but in my tests, that wasn't the case. Once you reached the limit, the service would direct you back to the login screen, but from there you could easily reconnect and start up a new session. This happened when the time ran out on my BlackBerry, which stayed connected the whole time I was exiting and then reboarding the ferry and thus exceeded the 45 minute rule; and again when I exceeded the 30MB on my PC with my background download. So it seems that there's not even rudimentary device ID blocking; just an enforced logout that lets you immediately log back in.
I don't know whether this is more rigorously enforced when the ferries are busier, but quite honestly I doubt it, as that seems a needless level of complication. And since in practice few regular commuters would ever want more than two goes at the system in a day, issuing what amounts to a suggested usage policy but not enforcing it seems pretty reasonable.
Best practice for ferry Wi-Fi
Let me make this abundantly clear: I'm not suggesting that people with time on their hands should wilfully exploit this service by sitting on a boat all day and using medium-speed Wi-Fi. The continuation of this kind of handy communication option depends on it not being abused, so any commuter with common sense will stick to a single device and respect those limits. And as I've noted, unless your daily commute involves taking more than two ferry trips a day — which is honestly rather unlikely — you won't exceed the time limit, and you'll be challenged to exceed the download limit.
I also recognise that in terms of work-life balance, sometimes the most sensible thing to do is to switch off your phone altogether and enjoy the water views. But if you do want to get something done — whether that's catching up on work, grabbing some time for personal projects, or tweeting the folks back home during your harbour trip — having Wi-Fi on board is a really nice adjunct.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman normally only writes one Road Worrier feature a week, but some things seem worth sharing earlier. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.