Airport Wireless Networks and the Need for Speed … Density and Coverage

Feb. 28, 2017

Wi-Fi is the No. 1 requested travel amenity, which makes it no surprise that airports are constantly focused on offering best-in-class wireless networks. Fast speeds are often viewed as the key to a successful network; however, speed alone does not equal an optimal user experience. That’s because when it comes to delivering great Wi-Fi, airports must provide a combination of speed, density and coverage. When all three work in unison, the real magic happens. Let’s review why.

1. Speed is paramount, but only one part to the equation

There is no question that fast networks elevate the connectivity experience. Fast upload and download Wi-Fi speeds offer passengers seamless connections, while helping them avoid expensive cellular roaming and data fees.

When analyzing airport wireless networks, the infrastructure should be built to accommodate the necessary speeds for travelers’ mobile activities, which primarily includes browsing emails and social networks and streaming music and videos. Streaming services typically require the most speed and bandwidth. For example, Netflix suggests 5 Mbps for streaming its content in HD; HBONow recommends 3 Mbps for HD quality; and Spotify and Pandora advises to have .3 Mbps for HD content. For business travelers who need the airport to function as an extension of their office, it’s also important to look at premium tiers of Wi-Fi service that can offer speeds up to 50 Mbps, which is suitable for quickly downloading or uploading extremely large files.

Fast speeds and mapping network offerings to passengers’ online habits are crucial, but Wi-Fi networks have to become increasingly denser to win over the passenger, which brings me to my next point.

2. Network density is every bit as important as speed

Simply put, if a high-speed Wi-Fi network isn’t dense, people can have trouble getting onto the network. Imagine a lone traveler sitting underneath a single Access Point (AP) at an empty boarding gate receiving fast speeds. Now imagine that same boarding gate, jam-packing with travelers, all sharing that same AP. The AP is so overloaded that users can’t even access the network—never mind the speed. So network density is every bit as important as speed.

Further, the amount of megabytes consumed in a Wi-Fi session is increasing at a rapid pace. Cisco predicts mobile data traffic will increase sevenfold by 2021, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 47 percent. Adding to this, the number of people who connect to the Wi-Fi network can exceed 50 percent of passengers in some airports—which amounts to thousands and thousands of simultaneous users. These trends underscore the need for airport Wi-Fi networks to become increasingly denser to support the onslaught of traffic, with vast amounts of bandwidth to handle the load.

3. Coverage rounds it out

The third leg of the stool for an efficient Wi-Fi network is coverage. Passengers may can have a great experience at the gate, but what about other areas of the airport? Consumers demand connectivity at every step of their journey—from the ticketing areas to the boarding gates, baggage claims and public areas in between. Wireless networks must be designed to serve users throughout their visit, as gaps in coverage can cause the user experience to be compromised. Consistency of coverage is also compounded by the evolution of Wi-Fi calling, where the user must have a persistent connection as he or she moves throughout the airport to maintain a voice call.

When looking at your airport wireless offerings, the most important question should not be “Is my airport network the fastest?” but rather “Does the network provide a great Wi-Fi experience to the end-user?” Set your airport up for success by ensuring the wireless network features the magic three—speed, density and coverage.

Scott Ewalt is the product and strategic customer experience lead for Boingo's global suite of retail products and services. He oversees Boingo's “Customer 360” strategy, including customer care, the implementation of CRM, and the integration of all customer touch points and engagements, including social, chat, voice and email. He previously worked in customer acquisition for Move Inc., the operator of, a News Corporation company, and as a media planner and buyer for MediaVest and DavisElen Advertising.