Establishing Airport Wireless Connectivity Without the Turbulence

June 18, 2024
Advanced RF Technologies
Julie Song, President of Advanced RF Technologies
Julie Song, President of Advanced RF Technologies

Last year, airport traffic rebounded to pre-COVID levels and is now poised for exponential growth, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projecting a 158% increase in passenger traffic by 2040. As passenger numbers surge, airports are ramping up their technology investments, aiming to digitize their operations, enhance efficiency, and improve the passenger experience.

To operate effectively on a day-to-day basis, airports must ensure staff and travelers enjoy excellent connectivity. However, achieving this goal is becoming increasingly challenging due to the growing complexity of wireless networks and the many radio frequency (RF) bands airlines must support. Operators should work closely with mobile carriers and system integrators to ensure wireless infrastructure can handle modern airport requirements and possess the flexibility to easily make changes over time.

A Need For Connectivity

Airport wireless infrastructure consists of two broad categories: terminal wireless systems and airside wireless systems. Terminal wireless communication activities are ones that passengers are most familiar with such as facilitating interactions among airline staff, managing passenger flow, and enabling communication between security personnel and first responders. Airside wireless, on the other hand, encompasses communication support for aircraft, caterers, and maintenance. 

In today's airports, wireless systems are indispensable for passengers, who use mobile apps for ticketing, contactless purchasing, real-time updates, wayfinding, and accessing essential information. This technology is also supportive of the terminals' high-definition screens, information kiosks, self-service stations, baggage tracking systems, and other services. Even staff rely on it for communication and asset control, contributing to high bandwidth demands that strain even the most advanced wireless networks. With such a dependence on wireless services, any disruptions can result in customer frustration, disappointment, and gate delays. This is especially true when utilizing wireless communications for airside. 

For decades, airside wireless primarily depended on voice communications over unsecured RF, with landline phone calls serving as the sole secure backup option. It wasn't until 2011 that The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) first proposed the Aeronautical Mobile Aircraft Communication System (AeroMACS) which enables FAA staff in control towers to transmit safety-critical information digitally and securely. Though it's projected to take 20 years to implement this transition across more than 40,000 airports globally, wireless connectivity is now not only a nice-to-have but imperative for operations. However, airports are intricate environments with a diverse and demanding array of coverage and capacity needs so providing consistent and undisrupted connectivity is a challenge. 

Connectivity Challenges

Airports pose a unique set of challenges in meeting the expectations for terminal and airside wireless connectivity. These facilities are often built using materials that impede wireless signal propagation, making it difficult for RF signals to penetrate in-building structures from the macro network. Thick walls, LEED-certified glass, and steel structures are among the primary obstacles encountered in the majority of airports.

Another challenge is passenger density. During peak seasons like summer, holidays, and spring break, millions of people pass through airports within similar time frames, which can overwhelm cellular networks and disrupt wireless services. This issue is compounded by the expansive size of airports, necessitating a comprehensive and scalable in-building wireless network to ensure coverage across terminals, concourses, and even remote areas such as runways and hangars, which encompass critical functions like air traffic control and airport operations. Achieving seamless coexistence without interference typically requires a more intricate wireless deployment strategy.

In addition to the physical challenges airports encounter with wireless connectivity, they also contend with network-related issues. The wireless ecosystem is intricate, with the major U.S. mobile carriers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and DISH—utilizing many RF bands to deliver 4G and 5G services including 600, 700, and 800MHz, 3.5GHz, 2.5GHz, and more. This is alongside maintaining private networks that leverage other frequencies like 900MHz or CBRS for their most critical operations and allocating resources to support the necessary RF bands for first responders and other public safety communications.

Addressing Scale and Network Complexity

Ultimately, airports require a solution capable of satisfying the complexities of scale and meeting the growing network demands for 4G, 5G, and private wireless. While it’s not the only way, the implementation of Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) is highly recommended and the preferred method to provide connectivity in airports. DAS provides a much more efficient and convenient single point of interface for any and all signal sources and can distribute RF to an expansive network of antennas dispersed across all terminals, parking areas, and administrative facilities to optimize infrastructure and provide significant cost and space savings. Thanks to its modularity, DAS can provide ubiquitous connectivity for all 4G, 5G, and private wireless RF bands for hundreds of thousands of square feet.

With the anticipated growth of airports and the rising integration of technology within them, ensuring a seamless wireless experience for all parties involved has become more crucial than ever. While airports present challenges, both in terms of physical infrastructure and network capabilities, there are viable solutions to address these issues and entities must begin to prioritize uninterrupted connectivity for staff and travelers.



About the Author

Julie Song | President

Julie Song is president of Advanced RF Technologies (ADRF), a leading provider of in-building radio enhancement systems that supplies solutions to carriers including Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T. Under Song’s leadership, ADRF acquired a fully-owned subsidiary in South Korea that handles ADRF’s R&D and manufacturing, and successfully launched its active fiber distributed antenna system (DAS) product platforms used by leading U.S. wireless service providers. Song also is responsible for the company’s expansion into Canada and Latin America markets and leads ADRF’s product development efforts in digital DAS and small cell technologies.