Accessing the Ether

Aug. 8, 2000


High-speed wireless Internet service allows travelers at airports to stay connnected

John Boyce, Contributing Editor

August 2000

AUSTIN, TX - There appears to be consensus among those familiar with the technology that high-speed wireless access to the Internet is a no-lose proposition for airports interested in providing it for their travelers.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA), the country's newest airport, recently became the first major commercial airport in the U.S. to provide wireless Internet access throughout its entire terminal. That is, the traveler can simply open a laptop computer anywhere in the terminal, slide in a special Ethernet card, and have access to the Internet, e-mail, and corporate networks - all without having to find an electrical plug.

"It's a blossoming technology that makes perfect sense for Austin," says Jamy Kazanoff, marketing and information director for ABIA, which serves a booming high-tech business community.

"Our sophisticated business travelers can stay connected while they're in the airport. From a practical, operational point of view, we don't have to worry about running out of (electrical) plugs. The entire 600,000-square foot building becomes a virtual office. It makes very good sense to offer this passenger service."

Wayport, Inc., an Austin-based company, installed the technology at ABIA and has five other airports under contract (DFW, JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, and Sea-Tac), and letters of intent from several others. At present, the company is the only one installing wireless technology in airport terminals.

However, Mobile Star, a Dallas competitor has, like Wayport, been installing similar technology in hotels and has a contract to install it in American Airlines VIP lounges at ABIA and other airports.

"It's a radio frequency technology," explains Janice Schroer, senior director of marketing and industry relations for Wayport. "There are two little lights on it (Ethernet card) just like a remote control on the TV. Then in the ceiling (of the terminal) are the access points and those are polling all the time, looking for those little lights. That's the way it communicates. "The access points are 300 to 600 feet apart, depending on what it has to go through. We put up enough of them so that the entire airport has coverage. Then, those are connected to a local area network and that's connected to the big T1 line which provides the fast communication to the Internet."

The speed of the wireless access is 50 times modem and 200 times cellular speed.

Wayport executives approached the City of Austin's Department of Avi-ation some three years ago and made a presentation about wireless Internet access for the new airport, which was under construction at the time.

"They made some presentations of technologies for the future that would be beneficial," says Charles Gates, the Department of Aviation's director of finance and administration. "When the airport opened last May (1999), some of their marketing folks made presentations (about wireless Internet service) and we thought it was something that would be beneficial to the travelers."

It's too early for numbers, but Kazanoff is optimistic about Wayport's success at ABIA.

"The customer feedback has been very positive," she says. "But the real proof of the pudding is how well they do with their subscriptions. I realize that airports are a secondary market (to hotels). I also realize that the more facilities that are hooked up the more this will grow and grow and grow and become even more convenient."

According the Schroer, Wayport has various financial models, depending on the negotiations with a particular airport. "First off," she says, "we pay for everything so there is no investment on their part. That allows them to offer a service to their passengers that is needed. The other part is that there is always some remuneration we give to the airport. But it varies. Sometimes it's a flat fee like it is in Austin on a per year basis. Other times it's on passenger deplanements. Others, it's on a per use basis.

"So we have a flexible financial model to meet the needs and interests of a particular airport."

For the first year, ABIA receives a fee of $25,000. The airport also receives $3,000 per month for three months for each of two manned promotional Wayport kiosks in the terminal. The kiosks are designed to introduce travelers to Wayport and its technology and sign up members.

ABIA chose the flat fee model rather than sharing in membership revenue because `"I guess we were looking at the future," Gates says. "If they continue to have kiosks with a staff person, then we would look at the possibility of doing that. As the contract was negotiated with our attorneys and communications folks, everyone thought with a new technology it was better to go with the one-time fee.

"I gather after the first year of usage we can get reports from Wayport about how much or how many hits occurred here at the airport. That may be a way of participating in those hits or usage as a separate fee."

Gates adds, pertaining to the three month kiosks contract, "We said that, if they (Wayport) wanted to extend longer than three months, at that time we would enter into negotiations to see what percentage of revenue we, as an airport, may be able to receive."

The contracts Wayport enters into with airports are non-exclusive, meaning that companies with similar technology can install their systems after negotiating with the airports.

Wayport is "clearly going after the major airports first," says Schroer, "but if a regional airport approaches us and the financial model is such that we can provide service to that airport and still make money, we will. But the reason we're going after the majors first is because, behind all this ... our hotels and airports are our distribution units to get to the traveler.

"We're selling membership so that they can buy individual connects or a bundle of connects and they can use that at Wayport airports and hotels."

The Ethernet card costs from $99 to $150, depending on whose card is purchased. Wayport currently has a special promotion on connections. Until Jan. 1, 2001, new members can get 50 free connections with an agreement to buy at least 10 connections.

Each connection will cost $3.50.

"It's not a per minute cost," Schroer says. "It's not the cell phone model. When you are at a certain location you can sign on and sign off as many times as you like until midnight and that's one connect. When you change locations, it becomes a second connect. It's very reasonable."

Because it is a new airport, ABIA was equipped with the cable infrastructure to accommodate the "pods" or access points needed to make wireless Internet access a working reality. In fact, installing Wayport's technology in Austin took a day to complete. That won't be the case for other, older, airports.

"At other airports," Schroer says, "it's a little more difficult to install. Austin had already put in the most sophisticated fibre and cabling. We didn't have to run any wires, we could just run across their infrastructure. Most other airports it's a little more complicated. For instance, we're installing D/FW and that's probably a 90-day installation."

However, Schroer says, the work needed to install the infrastructure is not disruptive to the operation of the airport.

"There's not any disruption to the terminal as far as the passengers are concerned," she says. "Of course, there is some management and coordination that has to occur with the airport workers, which was almost nil in Austin. It's another vendor they have to manage but most of the airports have been incredibly responsive to it, recognizing that it's a way to differentiate themselves from other airports and provide their passengers greater service."

While airports have to deal with Wayport as a vendor, they have no responsibility for the operation or the maintenance of the system.

"Basically," says Dirk Heinen, senior vice president of operations and company co-founder, "it's our responsibility to put in place the entire network infrastructure that enables a passenger to just connect. We manage the equipment on premises, the telecommunication circuit to the property, and all of the technical support in the rare case that it's required to help people to get connected the first time or if they have any questions or issue with the service.

"We monitor it almost minute by minute. We track every piece of equipment at the site to make sure it's up and functioning correctly. The airport is completely uninvolved in the day to day management of the network. For them, it's just an incremental revenue source and an added service for their passengers that they can promote."

Heinen, who along with Wayport co-founder and CEO Brett Stewart, was an executive with Advanced Micro Devices before starting the new company. He says that Wayport, in part, grew out of his frustrations as a business traveler.

"As one of the founders of Wayport," Heinen says, "I am kind of in the target demographic. I was a business traveler who was frustrated by connectivity in the places I traveled, and that included hotels and airports. I would struggle to get a slow modem connection in a hotel and I couldn't even find anyplace in an airport to plug in and get connectivity for accessing e-mail or the Internet or my company network. So Brett Stewart and I decided to found a company to see what we could to solve this problem."

The wireless service was made possible by the Wireless Ethernet Compat-ibility Alliance, an industry group that established a standard (802.11B).

Finding One's Self at the Airport
With Known Geographic Location, travelers will have a way to orient themselves quickly, while offering the airport an opportunity to communicate.

AUSTIN, TX - Wayport, Inc., the Austin-based provider of high speed wireless Internet access at hotels and airports, has improved on its technology by taking out a patent on what it calls Known Geographic Location.

According to Janice Schroer, company senior director of marketing and industry relations, the technology will allow travelers at airports to locate themselves in relation to everything else in the airport.

When the traveler signs on at a particular airport, the system immedately knows the airport.

"We can provide a schematic of the airport that says, ’You are here.' It will show where the nearest restroom is, where your gate is. It facilitates travelers getting themselves through the airport.

"It also has some marketing advantages. If the airport wanted to do this, it could announce a special on something (at concessions) or it could display a (discount) coupon or something like that.

"So far, we haven't deployed this. It's up to the airport. It would offer an opportunity to share revenue with individual vendors. We would share the vehicle and the revenue. It's a benefit for the airport and the concessionaires."