Wi-Fi, WiMax service for ‘Frisco bay
Milt Gregory is on a mission to set up wireless networks across bodies of water. His latest accomplishment: San Francisco Bay.

Gregory, president of Sunrise Wireless, said he has installed about US$2 million’s worth of Wi-Fi, WiMax and wireless backhaul gear from Proxim Wireless Corp. around the bay to serve 62 square miles on the water.

There is a WiMax wireless network for commercial vessels, including ferries, tankers and dinner-cruise vessels, as well as public safety rescue boats. The other network, based on Wi-Fi, is for recreational boaters to use. Gregory said laptops are able to get a good signal a half-mile from shore, using the long-range antennas from Proxim.

The idea for setting up wireless for the bay came from a commodities trader friend who wanted to do his trades from his sailboat, Gregory said in an interview.

“He asked me, ‘Why can’t I do my trades from my boat?'” Gregory said. “So I set up an experiment in 2004 and now we have this network.”

The official name for the two networks running over common backhaul is the inelegantly named SFOWetNET.

Gregory said he wanted to build the system in the tradition of great Silicon Valley startups, taking family money to build it and doing a lot of the work himself. He climbed many of the ladders to mount the gear atop tall downtown San Francisco buildings. With the help of some contractors, he installed antennas for 40 miles of backhaul and eight cell-tower locations atop the buildings, with six radios on each one.

Gregory hasn’t decided how the business plan for the operation will work, at least for the public Wi-Fi. Either the service will be sponsored by marine businesses, or users will pay a usage fee. For now the Wi-Fi is free. With 183,000 boats in the surrounding six counties, “we’ll see what sells and what the surfing public will provide,” Gregory said. “That many boaters is a huge number.”

Asked if that was realistic planning, Gregory said. “Well, we’ll see what happens. That’s the spirit that Silicon Valley was built on after all.”

Sunrise Wireless has a solid foundation of providing wireless service in Puget Sound for the Washington State Ferries system. It was there that Gregory learned how to prepare for wireless signals that bounce off the water, and to adjust to widely varying local tides, which cause the wireless pathways to constantly fluctuate.

With San Francisco Bay, the tide variation is not as great as with Puget Sound. “The biggest problem in Seattle was 16-foot tides, and there are only six-foot tides in San Francisco,” he said. “But there are other problems with water, which is nasty because of the multipath it creates for a signal… when the radio waves bounce off the water’s surface,” he said.

The WiMax network for commercial vessels, which runs on licence-free spectrum, will eventually be set up to provide voice over IP and real-time streaming video for delivering news and entertainment to vessels moving in and out of the bay.

The number of crew members coming into the bay aboard commercial ships is 85,000 a year, a group that could have common interests for content, Gregory said.

Gregory founded Sunrise in 2003 and found Proxim a good partner for the Seattle network. “We had good results with Proxim in Seattle and decided to bring it here,” he said. The San Francisco Bay system includes Proxim Tsunami long-range WiMax base stations and subscriber receivers aboard commercial boats and Proxim Orinoco AP-4000 long-range Wi-Fi access points.

Even though Sunrise seems like a cheery, if quaint, name for a wireless company, Gregory admitted he is not a morning person “at all” even though he likes sailing. “My wife and I were sitting around fiddling with names and came up with that name. My wife is clearly the morning person. I’m the complete opposite of a morning person,” he said.

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