3 Strategies for Keeping Customer Wi-Fi Humming at Peak Performance

Author: 
Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 
September
2015

There's no denying it: cell phones, laptops and tablets are officially ubiquitous. According to SAP, there were more mobile devices than people on Earth at the end of 2013. 

Travelers, in particular, have come to expect free Wi-Fi wherever they go - and not just free Wi-Fi, but fast Wi-Fi. They demand continuous coverage and want charging outlets available everywhere. Often, they carry two, three and even four mobile devices at a time. 

Research by Accenture found that more than 60% of U.S. hotels now offer customers free Wi-Fi. Room cost is the only competitive factor that customers consider more important than free in-room Internet. 

factsfigures
Project: Upgrading Wi-Fi Service
Location: Los Angeles Int'l Airport 
Cost: $1.5 million
Key Vendor: Boingo Wireless
Contract Scope: Upgrade, manage & operate network
Key Benefits: Speed of free Internet service will increase from 1.2 - 5 Mbps; users can pay for 10 Mbps & 20 Mbps service
Time Limit for Free Access: 45 min. (repeatable)
Anticipated Rollout of Upgrades: Later this year

Project: Upgrading Wi-Fi Service
Location: Seattle-Tacoma Int'l Airport 
Est. Cost: Nearly $10 million
Network Provider: Cisco
Heat Map Contractor: Aeropath 
Key Benefits: Faster service speed; easier for customers to connect; new service on ramp & apron
Est. Completion of Initial Components: Mid-2016

Project: Upgrading Wi-Fi Service
Location: Kansas City Int'l Airport 
Cost: $300,000 - $400,000
Total Access Points: 60 (vs. 18 previously) 
ID Management: Alexander Open Systems 
New Access Points: Cisco
Unique Challenge: Horseshoe-shaped concrete terminals complicated expanding coverage
Time Limit for Free Access: 1 hr (repeatable)
Avg. Current Network Load: No more than 650 concurrent users
Early Adopter: One of first U.S. airports to provide free customer Wi-Fi

Like hotels, airports are also feeling the pressure to keep travelers digitally connected. "The bottom line is that if people don't have good Wi-Fi, they will complain about the airport," says Dom Nessi, chief information officer at Los Angeles International Airport.

Operators throughout the United States are consequently considering network upgrades to handle the explosion of mobile devices and bandwidth usage. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Kansas City International Airport (MCI) and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) have all recently publicized details about system-wide enhancement projects, and each has a different strategy for meeting customer expectations.

"The airline industry is going mobile," says Dave Wilson, SEA's chief aviation technologist. "IATA's Fast Travel initiative takes advantage of smartphone technology to support the passenger processing experience, and we support that."

The airport's most recent annual survey about customer devices found that 34% of SEA passengers use a smartphone to board flights. "In 2011, about 70% of our passengers had a smartphone. In 2014, it increased to 88%," Wilson reports. "We have to continually improve to be ready to handle the traffic." 

Like airports, airlines are being pressured to keep pace. John Walton, on RunwayGirlNetwork.com, observes that some early air-to-ground Wi-Fi technologies were considered pretty fast back in 2008, when they were first introduced; but some of those initial versions of the popular amenity "haven't aged well in terms of passenger experience as devices have gotten hungrier."

LAX Plans for 4x Faster Speed

A $1.5 million upgrade to significantly boost the speed of free Wi-Fi at LAX is currently in the works. The airport signed a multi-year contract with Boingo Wireless to upgrade, manage and operate its Wi-Fi network. And in late July, the two organizations were in the technical planning phase of the project. Reconnaissance work will be required to determine what is needed for the large and complex upgrade that will span nine terminal areas.  

The upgrade is designed to increase free Internet speeds from 1.2 megabits per second (Mbps) to 5 Mbps. Travelers will also have the option to pay for faster connections of up to 10 and 20 Mbps. According to planners, the faster new free Wi-Fi will support the average user, and the premium services will satisfy the needs of even the most intensive users. 

"There are a variety of passengers who travel through our terminals: families downloading email; businesspeople wanting to do webinars and downloading large documents; the younger generation downloading movies and video," says Nessi. "We know we're not going to be able to satisfy the most demanding users all the time, but we want to be able to satisfy the majority of our customers. We know there will be high-saturation days when the Wi-Fi slows down, and we'd like to minimize this as much as we can."

In order to maximize efficiency of the new system, the LAX team commissioned a heat map to visually portray the signal strength in various terminal locations. The wireless heat map will help planners identify dead zones where additional access points are needed, make adjustments elsewhere and improve overall coverage.

The Wi-Fi system will need to continue to evolve as the airport raises ceilings, moves walls, adds concessions and changes office locations throughout its terminals, says Nessi. When the physical environment changes, people congregate in new places, and coverage needs to adjust accordingly. 

"It's a never-ending process," he comments. "You must constantly tweak your Wi-Fi areas as your traffic changes. You don't want to rely on customer complaints before you start improving your service."

With apps using much more bandwidth than in the past, additional users streaming larger files, and much more data being held in the cloud, Nessi believes that Internet service is starting to be considered a necessity rather than a luxury. Airports must consequently decide if their Wi-Fi will take on "utility" status like electricity and water, or "amenity" status.

"Generally speaking, in the days when airport Wi-Fi required a fee to access it, 2 to 3% of enplaning passengers were utilizing the service," says Boingo Vice President of Business Development Scott Phillips. "Now, with complimentary Wi-Fi having matured, we typically see about 30% of enplaning passengers using the Wi-Fi in a tier one airport with associated post-security dwell time. That's 10 to 15 times the number of users than when it was first installed. But the real challenge is that those customers are now consuming 30 times the amount of bandwidth. That exponential upward trend is driving the need for continuing upgrades." 

How Fast is Fast Enough?

While the LAX team realizes that Wi-Fi service will slow down on high saturation days, it wants to minimize those occurrences. Phillips recalls that in the early days of paid airport Wi-Fi, 512 kilobits per second (Kbps) was standard speed. Now, passengers expect 5 Mbps, which is 10 times faster.

"Customers expect that they will get the same level of service as they do at home," says Nessi. "When I enter a public area, my Wi-Fi connect rate drops significantly, and it's frustrating. We are users, too; and we understand that it's frustrating for passengers. But since it's a free service, we have to find some middle-ground."

Phillips predicts that the demand will continue to remain high. "I think when you offer people something for free, and they believe it could be better if enough people ask the airport for it, then they will ask for it," he explains. "That the airport is offering this level of service for free is tremendous when you consider that in most hotels and other public venues, you are lucky to get 1 Mbps for free." 

Consumer perception and education are consequently new public relations challenges for airport operators. 

"Consider that most home cable providers offer paid service plans ranging from 15 Mbps to 100 Mbps," says Phillips. "At a glance, it's easy to say that the 5 Mbps at the airport is much slower than home service. In reality, there are cases when the airport service will be better than the home service. 

"At the low end, home internet customers are paying roughly $30 per month for 15 Mbps," he explains. "For a family of four, let's assume all of them are using the service concurrently, streaming Netflix, etc. Now divide that shared 15 Mbps paid service by four, and each family member is theoretically getting 3.75 Mbps for an average cost of $7.50 per person per month. In comparison, if that family had been accessing the Internet at LAX, they would each get a guaranteed 5 Mbps connection for free." 

Coordination of concurrent systems is also an important factor. "We have two systems: one for passengers and one Los Angeles World Airports-owned system for airlines and tenants," explains Nessi. "Currently, we're looking at ways to give airlines and tenants more Wi-Fi access where it is part of the passenger processing system. Airlines have a need for Wi-Fi the moment the aircraft comes in, and they purchase their own Wi-Fi through local providers. The airport wants to move away from that model; we don't want a lot of different signals in the airport interfering with each other."

In July, LAX was preparing to issue a request for proposals for a distributed antenna system to increase cell coverage in its terminals.

"The industry is changing rapidly, and there are occasions where the cell carriers move their signals over to Wi-Fi; but there is also new technology," says Nessi. "Today it's 802.11; three years from now the technology may be completely different. One of the most important things is to be flexible. We count on the Wi-Fi experts to keep us abreast of what is going on and what is coming up so we can adjust."

Boingo officials appreciate the opportunity to assist their "hometown airport" through the industry-wide transition to free customer Wi-Fi. (Boingo headquarters is just down the road from LAX.) "In airports that didn't have free Wi-Fi, that was the number one passenger complaint. Now the number one complaint is that there aren't enough power outlets to support all of their devices," chronicles Phillips. "The next question for Boingo and airports is: Now that we offer free Wi-Fi, will it be good enough for passengers?" He further encourages airport operators to consider what "good enough" means. 

Passengers who use LAX's new free Internet service will be limited to 45 minutes and will see advertisements that help defray the cost of offering the service. For premium ad-free service, Boingo offers airport visitors "As You Go" plans of $4.95 for one hour and $7.95 for 24 hours with 10 Mbps speed. The company also offers monthly subscription plans that provide users with 20 Mbps speeds at LAX and up to 20 Mbps speeds and other airports with Boingo service.

LAX's new service is slated to launch later this year.

SEA Quadruples Access Points

The Port of Seattle is investing nearly $10 million from its capital improvement program to upgrade the Wi-Fi network at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). Improvements will benefit customers, airlines and airport operations personnel. Dramatic speed increases and easier connection procedures are reportedly in store for customers using the airport's free Wi-Fi. Airline and airport operations personnel will benefit from the extension of high-performance service onto the ramp and apron. 

During the project, SEA is adding a significant number of access points and divorcing from its old distributed antenna system. "In 2004, we had poor cell coverage, and putting in the distributed antenna system helped significantly," recalls Dave Wilson, the airport's chief aviation technologist. "Basically, the new access points have three to six antenna instead of two. Today, we can only support Wi-Fi 802.11a, b, and g. The new access point antenna are closer together with the correct geometry, which provides more frequency and faster connection because they will support 802.11n and 802.11ac at 5 Ghz."

After the upgrade is complete, the airport will have four times more access points. Individual passenger boarding bridges will have three access points; but access points are relatively inexpensive components, notes Wilson. Wiring is the more significant expense project, which includes installation of a fiber backbone on the ramp for the Wi-Fi expansion and future use.

"We have seen the demands for free Wi-Fi via social media mentions and passenger survey scores," reports Wilson. "As we made updates to our Wi-Fi, we also increased the number of power outlets, because once people were using the Internet more often, they also needed power to support multiple devices. As a result, we added 2,400 power outlets to support the demand."

SEA now offers under-seat power outlets at nearly every A, B, D, and S gate; additional outlets for C, D and N gates are planned for the near future. The airport provides a list of power outlet locations for customers at PortSeattle.org. The website also includes a detailed description of SEA's free Wi-Fi service and directions to access it.  

Like LAX, SEA is also in the process of securing a heat map. "A big part of the project is figuring out the proper locations for the access points," advises Wilson. "It's a combination of factors: You have to know where the people are and where are the holdrooms. Then, you have to figure out how many access points (are needed) for that number of people. You (also) have to look at interference points, like columns." 

LAX works with Cisco, its network provider; and Boingo sells advertising for the airport's free service. Currently, airport officials are not considering adding a premium service. Instead, they say their goal is to provide a premium experience for everyone.

"Good Wi-Fi is good customer service, and it's a key part of the passengers' boarding experience," asserts Wilson.

Other wireless projects under consideration at SEA include the development of a smartphone app and private Wi-Fi networks for tenants and airlines.

"If you think about it, the big aluminum airplanes block the Wi-Fi signal on the ramp," says Wilson. "We put an access point under the wing, then another one on top of the passenger bridge, and one on the mast of the building to get to the tail of the plane. Passengers board to the left and cargo (is loaded) to the right; and the adjacent access points provide a way for everyone who needs Wi-Fi to be able to use it."  

Project designers believe that they've addressed all known coverage gaps and expect passengers to experience high performance and high connectivity when the upgrade is complete. They planned for an initial maximum of 40 passengers per access point even though a single point can serve up to 200. The excess capacity is intended to allow for growth without overtaxing the system. 

Design for the project began in July, and Wilson expects the team to request construction authorization in the first quarter of next year. The first components of the project are slated for completion in mid-2016.

"We know it's going to be an incredible improvement for our passengers, and the airlines are excited as well," says Wilson.

MCI Expands Coverage

Kansas City International Airport (MCI) was one of the first U.S. airports to offer free Wi-Fi to customers. In 2005, MCI provided paid Wi-Fi through Sprint, but subsequently found that collecting payment was not worth the trouble, recalls David Jacobus, the airport's information technology manager. By 2008, MCI had converted to free Wi-Fi.  

"When we first offered it free, the majority of people were carrying laptops, and not that many people were connected," Jacobus relates. "But in the last few years, the proliferation of tablets and mobile devices has required an upgrade."

MCI officials also knew that some airline tenants were feeling the brunt more than others, and realized an upgrade was needed. The majority of available bandwidth was being used by airport employees, and there wasn't enough for passengers.

Working with Alexander Open Systems, the team began by completing a heat map. The map revealed that the airport's concrete horseshoe-shaped terminals caused more dead zones than they expected. What Jacobus and his team thought was a simple layout was actually rather difficult. The terminal's walls constantly curve; but access points radiate coverage in straight lines. 

As a result, the airport increased its access points from 18 to 60. The new Cisco access points are managed with a Cisco controller and provide speeds up to 5 Mbps. In addition, they are capable of accommodating 2,000 people on the network at the same time, with the possibility of upgrading to a maximum of 4,000 users. Currently, no more than 650 people use the system concurrently.

Mark VanLoh, director of aviation at MCI, explains that the airport started considering the upgrade about one year ago. Once team members received the go-ahead, they had the new system up in about three weeks, ready for the busy summer season. 

"It's much more robust than it was," reports Jacobus. "Now we have backup to the primary system. On average, we have 500 to 600 people connected at one time on our system. We had a limit on the previous system and couldn't go over 250, and we would field a complaint per day via phone or Twitter." 

These days, the airport has full coverage - there's nowhere inside the two terminals without a signal for passengers, and the signal is much faster and more reliable, notes Jacobus.

"We saw the trend, and more people were more dependent on their devices," adds VanLoh. "They come to the airport with time to kill. It was a great opportunity for us to give them the time to work and download what they need."

To maximize the system's speed, MCI blocks Android and Apple updates, which typically hog bandwidth. "If someone wants to jump on and do a whole iOS upgrade on their iPhone, that is probably something they should do at home," explains Jacobus. "We provide 2 Mbps, which is enough to stream a movie, use email, stream Netflix and YouTube, and complete other normal, everyday tasks. We have tested it at peak times to make sure there is enough bandwidth to accommodate demand." 

MCI also opted to remove the end-user agreement for Internet access to provide faster and more convenient connections for passengers. Now users don't have to make any stops on the way to the Internet; the connection pushes them straight into the stream.

"Out of the dozen or so airports we contacted, less than half (have) a user agreement anymore," Jacobus reports. "It was a passenger inconvenience we wanted to avoid, and now it's a much more streamlined process."

"Passengers seem to love our service," VanLoh informs. "Rarely, complaints are voiced via Facebook and Twitter, and we are notified right away."

"Twitter is a great real-time communication channel for us," agrees MCI Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications Joe McBride. "When we received complaints, we could answer and ask the customer the location of the weak or nonexistent Wi-Fi. We reported it immediately to the IT department, and they were on it."

Ad-free surfing space is likely one of the most appreciated aspects of the upgrade. "We have looked into adding advertisements, but we want to get used to what we're doing now and see how it goes," says VanLoh. "We knew this initial cost of $300,000 to $400,000 would be hard to swallow, but it needed to be done. This is what works for our passengers."

"Most of the complaints we heard in the past were about dead spots," he says.  "The old proverbial answer - 'It's free. What do you expect?' - is not acceptable." 

Looking ahead, VanLoh acknowledges the benefits of adding advertising to help defray the costs of system expenses - especially as more passengers download movies and other entertainment before boarding their flights. And while he hopes MCI will get 10 years out of its new system, he's also optimistic that a new service launched in Kansas City may provide even more options. 

"They say Google Fiber is a hundred times faster than normal Internet," says VanLoh. "We hope they'll come up this way."

With a new terminal in the crosshairs of the Kansas City Aviation Department, there is likely little that is completely off the table. 

Big Changes Ahead

Remember the days of hotspots, when mobile users were acutely aware of where they could pick up a signal? The advent of paid data plans via 3G and now 4G changed that; but a new issue of transitioning between individual paid service and free public use Wi-Fi soon emerged. It's a "moment of truth" that happens all the time at airports.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, a group of companies that provide Wi-Fi service, developed an industry-wide standard network protocol to facilitate that transition. The group branded its creation as Passpoint and introduced it in 2012. As a member of the Wi-Fi Alliance, Boingo provides the conveniences of Passpoint to airport partners.

"Passpoint eliminates the need for users to find and authenticate a network each time they connect," explains Phillips. "In Wi-Fi networks that do not support Passpoint, users must search for and choose a network, request the connection to the access point each time and, in many cases, must re-enter their authentication credentials. Passpoint automates that entire process ... enabling a more cellular-like service."

For instance, if a passenger is streaming a basketball game via 4G on his phone in a cab, Passpoint prevents a service disruption when the cab pulls up to the curb at LAX. Working in in the background, the phone "shakes hands" with Boingo, LAX's mobile carrier, and automatically switches the passenger to Wi-Fi. 

"The additional benefit of Passpoint that doesn't get as much attention is that it's a secure connection with WPA (Wi-Fi protected access) encryption," advises Phillips. "We've seen interest in the market not only from cellular carriers but other service providers, and a host of different people who want to leverage automatic, seamless Wi-Fi connectivity."

Boingo officials are currently focused on the exponential increase in Wi-Fi network demand they predict Passpoint will trigger. Phillips compares the potential magnitude of the previous spike that occurred when the public business model shifted from paid to free usage. Until recently, using Wi-Fi had been a conscious decision that required multiple steps by users: opening their device, adjusting network settings to connect to the Wi-Fi SSID, opening an Internet browser, and then following other steps to get online.

"Passpoint's seamless authentication eliminates all of that and takes that conscious decision out of the hands of the consumer," says Phillips. "It doesn't matter if they are walking down the concourse or exiting the aircraft via the Jetway; Passpoint is in place to automatically activate the mobile device's Wi-Fi connection."

He encourages airport operators and their consultants to consider that 32% of enplaning passengers and 16% of total passengers currently use airport Wi-Fi. "Because of Passpoint, we are now designing our systems to be able to expand support to 100% of total passengers in the airport," he emphasizes. "It's huge."

Beyond enormous future growth in Wi-Fi usage, Phillips notes that the lines between traditional distributed antenna systems and Wi-Fi will continue to blur. "As an airport-focused businessperson, I care about the next sea change in demand," he comments. "It happened when we went from paid to free, when demand grew from 2% to 30% of enplaning passengers, or 15% of total passengers. Now, with Passpoint, we'll need to be able to scale from 15% to potentially 100% of total passengers at the airport and be able to adapt to that quickly as the demand presents itself."

Nessi echoes the importance of maintaining pace with industry changes. "Airports must adapt to and adopt new technologies," he advises. "Pay close attention to what your community is expecting from the airport in terms of what they provide for communications, and react accordingly." 

Power in a Pinch

Kansas City International Airport (MCI) has a way to provide passengers with individualized or emergency power for their mobile devices and earn a little concession revenue in the process.

Customers can purchase a FuelRod(tm) kit for $20 at the airport, use the unit to power their cell phone and/or tablet, and then recharge it or return the depleted FuelRod for another fully powered unit at no additional charge. The starter kit includes a fully charged FuelRod, connection cable and four adapters for use with a variety of Apple and Android devices. When customers trade in spent FuelRods, they receive a fully-charged unit, without additional cables and adapters.  
According to the manufacturer, each "full" FuelRod powers up to eight hours of talk time on a smartphone or nearly four hours of tablet use. There is no limit to how many times customers can trade in "empty" FuelRods for "full" replacements. 

MCI has eight unstaffed FuelRod kiosks - four in Terminal B; four in Terminal C - where customers can purchase starter kits or swap empty units for full ones. The airport earns 10% of the kiosks' sales, and devotes minimal floor space to the new vending-style concession. 

While it's too soon to analyze FuelRod sales or gauge customer reception, MCI appreciates the value of providing a new option for tech-toting guests. "We see this as a convenience to the traveler, as they can take these on the airplane and power their devices on the go," explains Judith O'Donnell, senior properties specialist - aviation manager. 

Joe Yeagley, co-founder and chief operating officer of FuelRod, reports that sales have been "very strong at most every airport we have put them."

As of early August, nine U.S. airports have FuelRod kiosks in their terminals (see list at right). That means if a passenger departing MCI for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) discovers that her iPad battery is dead; she can buy a FuelRod near her departure gate at MCI, use it inflight, and then exchange it for a full unit at a kiosk in MSP's baggage claim area. The passenger not only has a source of power to use while in the Twin Cities, she can also swap for a freshly charged FuelRod before flying back to Kansas City. 

"We see a dramatic increase in sales if FuelRod is at each end of a route," notes Yeagley. 

Beyond MCI and MSP, the following airports currently have FuelRod kiosks: Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Minneapolis-Saint Paul International, Oakland International, Port Columbus International, Philadelphia International, Sacramento International and San Diego International. 

"Airports like the idea of mobile charging, because they expect to provide higher levels of service to the customer," comments Yeagley. "People can't take advantage of concessions if they are tethered to an outlet; both services are of great benefit." 

FuelRod kiosks are also popping up in shopping centers, convention centers and other high-traffic public venues. 

 

Subcategory: 
IT/Communications

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