Airport 5G Moves from Concept to Reality

Oct. 15, 2020
5G has moved from concept to reality as airports of all sizes launch next generation wireless technologies to not only satisfy passenger connectivity demands

Connectivity has never been so important. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are relying on wireless networks for their work, education and entertainment like never before. Behind the scenes, the telecom community is doing its part to provide continuity during this unprecedented time, while pressing forward to realize a fully connected 5G future.

When looking at 5G, this latest global health challenge has revealed what many in the tech industry have long known — 5G is changing the landscape of business and accelerating digital transformation strategies. For airports, 5G has moved from concept to reality as airports of all sizes launch next generation wireless technologies to not only satisfy passenger connectivity demands, but to support recovery efforts and facilitate a more touchless travel experience.

5G has arrived and airports ready for takeoff with new wireless innovations can pull ahead. Here’s an update on 5G and how it’s evolving to solve challenges brought on by COVID-19.

Dissecting 5G

5G is complex and understanding its DNA will help airports shape the right 5G strategy.

For starters, 5G is not a one size fits all approach. Each U.S. cellular carrier—AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon—is deploying their own 5G strategy that leverages varying technologies. We’re seeing 5G deployments across multiple swaths of spectrum—licensed, unlicensed and shared; as well as high, mid and low bands.

Millimeter Wave (mmWave) is a cornerstone to licensed 5G networks. The high frequency signals travel in narrow wavelengths to deliver increased capacity and ultrafast speeds for passenger applications like HD video streaming and gaming. Boingo recently partnered with Verizon to deploy its mmWave network, called 5G Ultra Wideband, at major airports across the U.S. The network consists of small cells that create a hyperdense wireless environment by bringing more nodes closer to the end user. This 5G solution performs well in converged models, where mmWave can be deployed alongside LTE cellular distributed antenna systems (DAS), Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS networks. This helps more passengers stay connected, whether their device supports 3G, 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi or CBRS.

Speaking of CBRS—Citizens Broadband Radio Service—airports are strong candidates for this 5G network offering as the shared band offers favorable, cost effective mid-band spectrum for fast and secure connectivity. Boingo launched the first known CBRS network at a major airport, Dallas Love Field Airport (DAL), and operates it as a private LTE (PLTE) solution to expand wireless coverage and capacity.

While PLTE can be great for passenger communications, airports are prioritizing CBRS for operational use cases. For example, with private networks over CBRS, airports can improve safety and security with 4K video surveillance. Advanced video cameras use CBRS to stream near real-time situational data analysis for AI-powered security monitoring services. Biometrics devices can also rely on the spectrum for secure entry, concessions and boarding.

I want to spend more time on 5G use cases like security and biometrics, but first want to cover another important player to airport 5G strategies—Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E.

Wi-Fi 6 is the latest Wi-Fi standard that was developed to advance Wi-Fi capabilities to effectively handle growing traffic demands. Airports are adopting Wi-Fi 6 to support key 5G requirements across capacity, throughput, latency, connection density and speed. Wi-Fi 6 networks improve passenger applications like mobile boarding passes, wayfinding, streaming and downloading large files, and are backwards compatible with Wi-Fi 5 and other older generation Wi-Fi devices.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced it will open the 6 GHz frequency band for Wi-Fi use. Wi-Fi 6E is the industry name for Wi-Fi devices that operate in 6 GHz. Wi-Fi 6E offers the features and capabilities of Wi-Fi 6—including higher performance, lower latency, and faster data rates—extended into its own, high-speed lane, the 6 GHz band.

Early trials of Wi-Fi 6E achieved speeds of two gigabits per second (Gbps) and consistent two-millisecond low latency connections—a major step up from current airport Wi-Fi technology.

Wi-Fi 6E is an exciting advancement for airport connectivity in the 5G era and will be a key solution for cost effective, multi-gigabit broadband, Passpoint Secure and Wi-Fi offload deployments. Passpoint, a hotspot technology that enables travelers to seamlessly and securely roam between Wi-Fi and cellular, is compatible with Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E and will continue to be a go-to option for delivering a converged, ubiquitous connected experience to passengers.

As wireless expands its role through innovative technologies, convergence and interoperability come sharply into focus. Neutral host has emerged as an optimal business model for powering 5G use cases and managing all flavors of radio spectrum. It consolidates diverse networking solutions—from mmWave to CBRS to LTE to Passpoint to Wi-Fi 6—under one managed platform to seamlessly connect passengers and things within an airport. The approach works by sharing equipment and resources among multiple wireless operators, making it easier and more economical to provide interoperable 5G services. It also implements a layered cybersecurity architecture to protect data and safeguard assets.

5G in Action

Passenger flow predictions, runway monitoring, smart metering and baggage tracking have been at the forefront of airport 5G use cases. To ensure the health and safety of passengers and staff, expanded use cases have surfaced to provide a more touchless travel experience, helping airports meet health guidelines and rebuild consumer confidence. These include:

·       Social distancing measurement—digital cameras and sensors that monitor the average distance between passengers and staff

·        Security checkpoints—self-service facial recognition and biometrics devices for contactless entry

·        Mobile concessions—in-app ordering and delivery, as well as dispersed point-of-sale kiosks with self-service payment for food, beverage and retail

·        Cleaning and maintenance—ionization, ultraviolet light technology and robotic cleaning scrubbers to rigorously disinfect

·        Health check screening—temperature checks via infrared scanners, sensors and autonomous thermometers for airport and airline employees, and as mandated for passengers

·        Passenger communications—proximity-based digital signage, virtual queuing or volunteer notifications, Wi-Fi connection portal messaging and PSAs to remind passengers and staff of health and safety protocols

·        Staff and first responder communication—push-to-talk devices for secure 2-way message transmission

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), LaGuardia Airport (LGA) are among the major airports that have taken quick action to roll out new use cases through cutting-edge technology.

Touchless faucets, hands-free drinking fountains, touchless elevators and personal protective equipment (PPE) vending machines with touch-free payment have been implemented at LAX. Contactless entry is available at CLEAR pre-check kiosks, where 5G-ready networks power the frictionless experience for passengers.

At ORD, secure wireless networks support the airport’s proprietary biometrics system to process touchless passenger boarding; and at LGA’s new Terminal B Arrivals and Departures Hall, contactless food ordering and delivery is offered via LGA’s At Your Gate app—which can be accessed using the airport’s ultrafast network. In Dallas, DAL is using its 5G-ready network for connected thermometers that take temperatures for staff before they return to work.

From “wear a mask” announcements to social distancing requests, PHX, JFK and other airports are relying on next generation Wi-Fi connection portals to send messages that remind passengers and staff of health and safety protocols.

The Road Ahead

Similar to sustained changes to the travel industry after 9/11, the technology solutions and safety measures airports implement now are likely to become the industry standard for the future. Challenges remain, but 5G is the common denominator for solving touchless experience demands and addressing the unrelenting increase in mobile data traffic.

With current lowered passenger traffic, 5G projects can move faster as construction teams have more flexibility to work and move within the terminal. Taking necessary 5G steps now helps airports adapt and rebuild not just for today, but for the next generation of aviation, where digital transformation streamlines airport operations and enhances the passenger journey.

Airports have—and will continue—to rise to the challenge through innovation and a resilient spirit. This latest challenge will serve to push the transportation industry forward into a whole new era of travel. Now, more than ever, we’re in this together.

Danielle D. Aiello is vice president, account management at Boingo Wireless (NASDAQ: WIFI), a leader in wireless connectivity for more than 100 major airports around the world. Aiello works with Boingo’s airport partners to ensure 5G wireless solutions positively impact operations and the passenger experience. Connect with Boingo at and Aiello on LinkedIn at