Philadelphia Int’l is Updating - and Monetizing - Its Information Technology Network

Philadelphia Int’l is Updating - and Monetizing - Its Information Technology Network
Scott Berman
Published in: 

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) has embarked on a comprehensive program to take its information technology (IT) network far into the future. The vision is to create and own a seamless, standardized network that optimizes the passenger experience and provides efficient service for carriers and tenants. If all goes according to plan, the new network will eventually produce additional revenue.

To turn the vision into reality, PHL is supplementing its internal IT team with outside consultant WSP USA and five local subcontractors. What the airport doesn’t have is a crystal ball to predict how technology and the industry will change. But that doesn’t phase PHL Chief Information Officer Allen Mehta, who is spearheading the project. Mehta knows that surprises are likely, and is prepared to face them.

The $6 million project is formally named the Philadelphia Airports Network Modernization Program because it also applies to Northeast Philadelphia Airport (PNE), which focuses on general aviation business. The comprehensive plan includes updating communications rooms to support a new IT infrastructure for both updated and still-emerging technologies. Mehta points out that the results will include a new neutral host distributed antenna system to support the next generations of Wi-Fi and cellular, a resilient network that can resist a disaster and will enable business continuity protocols. Another key component is developing ways to generate revenue from those services.


Project: Network Modernization

Locations: Philadelphia Int’l Airport (PHL); Northeast Philadelphia Airport (PNE)

PHL Annual Passengers: 9.8 million

PNE Annual Aircraft Operations: 38,000

Project Cost: $6 million

Timeline: 2020-2024

Strategy: Create & own seamless, standardized IT network that optimizes the passenger experience and carrier & tenant services; recoup project expenses & create revenue stream by charging tenants to use new network

General Contractor: WSP USA

Distributed Antenna System: Slice Wireless Solutions

Project Management for Construction Administration: Arora Engineers LLC

Passive Network Infrastructure Assessment & Design; Active Network Infrastructure Support: Moye Consulting

IT Master Planning, Wireless Assessment & Design; Data & Cyber Security Support: The JW Group

Architectural Support: Sowinski Sullivan Architects

Disaster Recovery Services Planning Support: UAO Consulting

It’s all about what comes next for PHL. “The airport is looking to the future and achieving its goal to be a top-tier large hub airport on the East Coast,” Mehta explains. “So it’s important for us to improve the core infrastructure that will continue to support technology growth.”

Gary Brown, senior information technology project manager at PHL, notes that the project team will monitor and deliver reports about the current state of the airport’s IT project. “Leadership can then use this information to better prepare for the future growth of PHL,” he adds.

The Background

When conceived in 2018, the project was originally designed to resolve all of the airport’s technology challenges at once. However, that changed when Mehta came on board in 2019. “I realized that we cannot do everything in one go,” he explains. “We needed to develop a stable and robust network infrastructure that would be the foundation for the future needs.”

Given the comprehensive nature of what lay ahead, the airport hired WSP in mid-2020 to help chart the course. “For many of the initiatives we wanted to address, we did not have the subject matter expertise on staff,” Brown explains.

Charles “Chuck” Reed, assistant vice president and national design lead for WSP’s Advanced Technology Group, notes that the consultant’s experience includes recent communications infrastructure planning and preliminary design for JFK International Airport, and communications development for the new central terminal building at LaGuardia Airport. Complementing that, Mehta brings an “operational IT viewpoint” to the project and experience from key IT positions in other industries, including transportation, distribution and health care.

The Process

So far, the project at PHL has consisted of research, planning and programming to line up two years of construction, which could begin in 2023.

Without a doubt, the technologies and tasks are complex. To simplify matters, Reed boils the research and planning process down to three crucial questions: What do you have? What do you need? and How do we get there?

The project team received some unexpected answers when stakeholders began answering the first question, What do you have?. “We have run across some interesting surprises during this engagement—one being how little we knew about our own infrastructure limitations and the inconsistent implementation of various technology projects,” Mehta shares.

On a related point, Reed notes that airports typically don’t own all of their IT infrastructure. “By that, I mean networking capacity, cable infrastructure, network switches, computers, all those magic bits that make things work,” he explains. “Everything from the coffee shop kiosk to the airline check-in counter runs on that background equipment that airports typically don’t own. Instead, they’re owned and maintained, bought and installed, by whatever vendor or tenant happens to have that space.”

The resulting mishmash is consequently impossible to maintain, service and plan for systemwide, he adds.

Armed with valuable new information, the PHL project team dovetailed directly to Question 2: What do you need? Part of the answer was to have WSP help develop infrastructure design and implementation standards documents that include details such as requirements for equipment closets, how the cable plant should be documented and implemented, and optimal layouts for data rooms. Mehta describes such documentation as technology best practices that will provide consistency for future construction projects. “These are not hard rules, but suggested guidelines,” he notes.

Reed says the key is to chart a path of development. That way, the airport will have a standardized approach and will own and control its entire network when the project is finished.

“Let’s say the airport adds gates,” he explains. “Now, they will have up-to-date standards documents to follow and an entire dynamic electronic database environment. So when construction happens, we know what’s needed in short order. We’re not digging through seven-year-old archives. Instead, they’ll know swiftly what the existing IT conditions are as they, say, enlarge a concourse. Architects can hand techs this data and a set of detailed design standards. As changes occur over time, it’s not about updating computer-aided design drawings; it’s about a standardized, dynamic, digital system that they can update dynamically.”

There is also the matter of revenue. Reed says that early on in the process, PHL decided to “jump the shark” and commit to devising a way to own its network and generate revenue from the system. “That is a completely new approach in the industry—the willingness to take that on,” he emphasizes.

Under such an arrangement, tenants would lease network capacity and pay for bandwidth and the amount of landline or Wi-Fi data transmitted during a particular billing period, just as they pay for utilities such as electricity and water. Reed says it is difficult to project precise figures, but notes that an owned IT network properly completed would not only pay for itself, but could also provide capital revenue for the airport.

In the meantime, PHL continues to focus on the third question, “How do you get there?”. WSP is helping turn the airport’s vision into technical specifications for a request for proposal. “This will provide the foundation for a roadmap of what we need to do,” says Brown.

In addition to the outside consultant, about 10 airport IT employees have worked on the initiative so far, and several other departments have provided information as needed over the years. After initial contacts and meetings, WSP began evaluating the airport’s IT situation on site, with escorts and assistance from internal IT staff.

Northeast Philadelphia Airport (PNE), which focuses on general aviation traffic, is also part of the initiative. Mehta explains that PNE is connected to PHL through various networks and will be the subject of continuing development and management of the wireless and cellular backbone. It is also being considered as a redundant disaster recovery location for the IT data center.

For both airports, Brown emphasizes the importance of standards and procedures to effectively manage future initiatives. “Once we have a book of standards, a playbook, we can then manage the needs of technical applications that serve the airports,” he says. “In essence, these standards will live well into the next 20 to 30 years.”

The project team is currently working toward that goal. Preliminary planning and research that began in 2020 was largely completed this summer, and WSP has completed reports on existing conditions of telecommunications spaces, an IT and networking design standards document, and a disaster recovery report.

What’s Next

Progress on the comprehensive project is ongoing. PHL accepted proposals from multiple distributed antenna system providers and recently awarded a contract for the airportwide system to Slice Wireless Solutions. The airport and provider are currently working out the contract and its technical implementation, with WSP and the PHL IT team reviewing the implementation plans. That project is expected to start early next year.

Once in place, the new system will be a crucial part of the standardized, owned service on a common platform throughout the airport. Reed estimates that the distributed antenna system program will be about one-third of the overall network, and it alone could return millions of dollars over a five-year span.

“Over the next several years, we expect to see the fruits of all the hard work that has gone into this project,” says Mehta.

Reed predicts significant improvements for passengers, airlines and terminal tenants alike. In the near future, possibly within five years, he foresees all tenants using the new network, PHL owning the network and all associated data, and a third party maintaining the system. Passengers could have access to a new airport app that will advise them where to park based on their flight time, gate location and the availability of spaces on specific decks in various parking facilities. The app will also indicate which TSA checkpoint has the shortest wait time and suggest concessions based on other apps each particular passenger has downloaded. It will even offer travelers the option to pre-order concessions near their checkpoint and/or gate. “You can create that fabled passenger experience everyone talks about—the ability to walk a passenger up through the garage and into a plane,” Reed remarks.

The system to achieve that ease at PHL is well underway, but much work still remains. Mehta describes the process as building a foundation for IT of the future. He shies away from the phrase “future-proofing” because he knows how quickly technology and the industry can change.

“I wish we had a crystal ball to look into,” he quips. “But unfortunately, we haven’t found one that actually works, so we have to look at trends and best guesses.”

Tips and Takeaways

Reed notes that hammering out a transformation like this requires commitment because it requires a difficult climb upfront. That said, he feels trust is equally important because such processes invariably involve challenges and complications. “It’s not all roses and sunshine,” he reflects. “This is a tough task, so you have to have a solid level of trust.”

Airports embarking on an IT process of such magnitude demonstrate commitment and trust when they include people with authority on the project team, Reed adds. 

From PHL’s perspective, Mehta and Brown emphasize the need for team members with solid knowledge of IT and airports. In fact, it takes “subject matter experts that will bring specific expertise in areas of need,” says Brown. “If there is not the ability to hire these resources, then strategic partners are the best option.”

Mehta notes that patience and fortitude are also needed for long-term IT projects. “If you find a crystal ball, even better,” he quips.


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