Pittsburgh launches first-of-its-kind Wi-Fi network for inland waterways

The nation’s inland waterways are among the last vestiges of pre-Internet technology, where barges and tugboats communicate via radios and air horns.

The (PPC) is changing that, building a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi network for its inland waterways that will ultimately extend to at least 10 locks and dams in Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties, integrating real-time navigation information, cargo-tracking and the operation of waterway sensors.

"We have a very real economic and human interest in improving the safety, security and efficiency of our inland communications system, and Pittsburgh serves as a unique laboratory for this technology," James McCarville, PPC’s executive director, said in a release.

PPC’s network, dubbed the Wireless Waterways Project, reportedly is the first of its kind deployed on inland waterways, and  port officials say they hope the system will be expanded across the country to help the barge industry nationwide. Currently the wireless project covers locks and dams and six miles of three rivers in Allegheny County – the Pittsburgh Pool at Emsworth (Ohio River), Braddock (Monongahela River) and Allegheny Lock #2 (Allegheny River).

“This is really opening up a new arena — here we have a segment of the economy that the Internet hasn’t been developed for yet," Carville told Government Technology.

Today river vessels are the stepchild of technology, with reliance on old technology such as VHF radio. Most rivers run through rural or low-income areas, and cell phone reception and Internet availability can be spotty.

Without a wireless system, “we don’t have a reliable way of verifying when and where people will show up," he told Government Technology. "As a result, we’ve got a tremendous amount of lost time in trucks ordered, trains ordered for barges that don’t appear on the predicted schedule. This is going to bring transparency to that schedule and take a tremendous amount of inefficiency out of the waterway intermodal connections.”

The project also is expected to improve communications interoperability with the Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies, allowing for more cooperative detection, response and recovery from potential or present terror risks on or near the waterways. Communication interoperability has been a major concern of the Department of Homeland Security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

PPC awarded Connxx Pennsylvania the $1.3 million contract to design, build, operate, manage and maintain the network, which will be available to cell phones, tablets and other wireless devices. PPC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are overseeing the effort, which was initiated in 2009.The Project is funded in part by a $975,000 federal port security grant and $325,000 in matching funds from the PPC. The project is now in its third phase of implementation.

Consol Energy is providing an interoperability test bed (Safety Pledge) for outside companies to test their equipment on PPC’s network. The test bed will be used for river bed sounding technology, a 3D camera/software technology and GPS tracking technology.

PPC also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a computerized virtual locking system to aid vessels entering a lock chamber in low-visibility conditions. The wireless system is required to make the system work.

Pittsburgh is the second busiest inland port and handles more than 32 million tons of cargo annually. 

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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