School boards along Alaska ferry routes push for onboard Web access

Kodiak Daily MirrorMarch 11, 2013 

KODIAK -- Staying on top of schoolwork is hard for Kodiak students on a ferry with no Internet access.

The Kodiak Island Borough school board is considering an approach to fix that problem by asking the Alaska Marine Highway System to install high-speed wireless Internet onboard ferries.

On the school board's agenda for next week is a resolution asking the ferry service to install wireless Internet onboard ferries so students who are traveling for school activities can do their homework. A handful of other schools in Southeast Alaska and other areas of the state have already passed or are considering similar resolutions.

Kodiak Island Borough School District superintendent Stewart McDonald said the resolution would benefit the hundreds of students in the district who travel for sports and other school activities, not to mention the students from other districts.

"We have a lot of students who use the ferry system," McDonald said. "We try to send schoolwork with them while they sit on the ferry to minimize the impact of their being gone."

Most homework assignments are digital, and it's difficult for students to work on them when they don't have access to Internet.

"When students get to the school, we usually have to convince the other school to let students on the network so they can continue their homework," McDonald said.

The marine highway said adding Internet to the ferries could be a possibility.

Marine highway spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the ferry system is working on a project to provide Internet via satellite, but that system is only planned for ferry staff.

"The Marine Highway System is in the process of changing the reservation and point of sales system, how we do monetary transactions on the ship that would be done via an Internet system," Woodrow said. "Once it is in place, we can look at what bandwidth is then available to be used by the public."

The marine highway has already received funding for its current reservation systems project, but adding Internet available to the public would require additional funding from the Alaska Legislature.

Alaska Airlines offers high-speed Internet for a fee, but Woodrow said based on initial talks, the marine highway would try to offer it as an amenity to those who use the ferries, adding that it would benefit more than just students who travel on the ferry system.

"I can see the business public benefiting from it just as much as students do," Woodrow said.

The new reservation system will be introduced this summer. Woodrow said that by 2014, the marine highway should have a better evaluation of what the systems onboard are using in terms of bandwidth, and whether or not it will be able to make Internet available to the public. Other factors it will have to consider are whether or not Internet service will be offered for certain runs or specific ferries.

The resolution will come before the school board at its next regular meeting on March 18.

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