By Jodi Prill, Associate Editor
Minneapolis/St. Paul and San Jose international airports have implemented public access wireless Internet systems. Operating under different business models, both airports have seen benefits to passengers and anticipate usage will only grow.
Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP) introduced wireless in March 2002. According to Brian Peters, assistant manager of airline affairs, Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC), 75 percent of the public gate areas are wireless equipped. "We're hoping to have 100 percent of gates covered by next summer," he adds. The process was long and arduous, and Peters doesn't think the full benefits of the system have been reaped, but the airport is on the leading edge. MAC started the RFP process in December 2000, recognizing wireless service could be a benefit to the passengers, as well as, down the road, additional revenue for the airport. Concourse Communications Group eventually won the bid to be a neutral host provider, meaning the wireless
"In my mind, what is dependent on the service really taking off is the passenger being able to get access on both ends of the trip."
Brian Peters, MAC
system is managed through one company and Internet service is provided through one or more other companies. "It was our desire to have one system, essentially one cable running up and through the concourses that was able to accommodate all providers." Peters says. "We didn't want to have one company come in with an installation, and then another company with another installation." According to the contract MAC has with the neutral host provider, "Concourse Communications Group is responsible for all the costs associated with installing and operating the network, and the airport essentially is not bearing any of that responsibility," Peters explains. "However, Concourse was given access to a preexisting fiber optic backbone MAC installed [at a cost of $1.3 million] for general airport uses prior to the wireless RFP. "We then share revenue that Concourse generates on a 30-70 percent split, in favor of Concourse."
Customers are charged $7.95 per day for unlimited daily logon. That payment is collected by the ISP (Internet service provider), InfoTouch. Peters says one long-term goal of the system is to allow customers to choose from a range of ISPs. "Eventually, once [wireless] grows and becomes more prominent, throughout not only our airport but other airports throughout the country, you will be able to access other providers once Concourse reaches agreements with other wireless ISPs. To date, there haven't been any other agreements set up." Currently, passengers are the only customers of the wireless system. However, Peters says the infrastructure is designed to accommodate use by airlines and other tenants of the airport. "The only thing that will have to happen is we'll have to put some more access points within the airline and concessions' operations areas. Right now, they don't have coverage."
Airport tenants could use the wireless system for communications and daily operations. It could also serve as an additional way for concessionaires to reach customers, by including announcements or special offers on the airport's website. So far the airlines have not shown an interest in utilizing the wireless network. Northwest Airlines, MSP's hub carrier, has had its own wireless network installed for some two years. "[Northwest] would be … the most likely user of [the airport's] system, but since they already have their own, they don't need access. And the others - I don't know if it's on their radar screens yet, but eventually, when it is, it will be there for them so they don't have to go through and invest dollars to implement their own systems."
"In my mind, what is dependent on the service really taking off is the passenger being able to get access on both ends of a trip." - Brian Peters, MAC
According to Peters, the airport's system and Northwest's system have not experienced any problems with interference. "Everything was set up knowing where their system is, specifically so it would not interfere."
Peters says some 25 people per day log on to the airport's wireless Internet. This is much lower than the airport, neutral host, and ISP would like. "We're hoping to increase that number by eventually covering 100 percent of the terminal, and by some more aggressive in-terminal promotions." Marketing tied to the wireless Internet features some 75 signs above airport directories located throughout the terminal. Peters says the airport also features service centers with promotions to help raise awareness. He expects the airport will come out with other, more creative ways of promoting the service in the near future. Another reason for low usage, Peters says, is the relative low overall number of wireless users. "We expect that as more and more airports introduce the service, then we will probably see an increase in usage … In my mind, what is dependent on the service really taking off is the passenger being able to get access on both ends of a trip." Through a customer satisfaction survey, Peters reports that many passengers would prefer to connect through MSP knowing that wireless Internet access is available. Peters says the airport hasn't seen any significant amount of revenue from the system, and doesn't expect to for another year or so. "The amount of wireless users is growing every day, and as that number of users grows and it becomes more popular, then I think it will become more of a revenue generator for the airport."
San Jose International Airport took a different route in bringing WiFi access to the airport. According to Charles Felix, information systems manager, the airport is operating under a model where, "we allow basically any provider to come in and we negotiate an agreement with them for access
to the airport site." Wayport, a wireless provider, demonstrated interest in installing a wireless system a few years ago. "Wayport came to the airport, and of course, being in Silicon Valley, we very much wanted to be able to provide that service to our customers," Felix says. Other wireless providers followed Wayport, including T-Mobile, and private installations for airport and airline use. Felix says that so far, the airport hasn't had any reports of interference among the systems, but for this reason, he says a neutral host model is something the airport will be considering in the future. Especially if a ballot initiative, up for vote in March, is passed that approves a new terminal building. "We see this as a growing technology, one where more and more providers will want to come in and we see that as a problem if we do not control the architecture of the wireless system," he says.
HOW IT WORKS
Felix explains that when a passenger turns on his or her laptop, he or she will primarily be served by Wayport. T-Mobile service is available in the American Airlines lounge areas, but the company is currently negotiating with the city to expand the system to become terminal-wide. "Depending on the operating system that the user has, the new operating systems like XP will recognize the different [provider options] and present the user with a choice as to which they want to connect to." The airport has also jumped on the wireless train. It currently has a private installation that is not available to general users in the airport. Felix says the secure system is used primarily for training labs.
Beyond Public Wireless Internet Access
At the recent Wireless Airports Association Conference and Exposition, discussion included the benefits of wireless for airline and security applications.
Several airlines are currently employing wireless technology or considering it. Tom Fulton, general manager of eBusiness for Delta Air Lines, says the company is "taking a less aggressive role" in regard to wireless implementation. It is using an 802.11b system on bag tugs for gate assignment in Atlanta, but because of a lack of funding, it has not ventured into the public facilities arena. "We are focused on ramp and below the wing applications," Fulton says. "I don't see us going to a complete wireless operation - we supplement and augment." Alaska Airlines has had wireless deployed for nearly four years. Main uses include tracking inventory for airplane stock and heavy maintenance at its major facilities. According to Bill Heppner, director of system integration, the airline is currently testing a wireless baggage reconciliation system. And, similar to Delta, most of its focus is on the operational side of wireless applications. In Toronto, the airport is working "hand in hand with Air Canada" to create a wireless network, according to Thomas Tisch of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.
Robert Smallback, Southwest Florida International Airport, is interested in the security benefits a wireless infrastructure could provide. "Very little has been done for security at airports, relatively speaking," Smallback says. Time and money have been exhausted on screening passengers and baggage inside the airport, but the acres outside the terminal buildings, including construction sites and fuel farms, are being ignored. Smallback has included the fuel farm and construction site at his airport in a test program for wireless perimeter security through GuardianWatch. "It's vital for us to look at security issues with this massive amount of territory and develop proactive and preventive solutions," he says.