Airlines and US airports fall out over Wi-Fi

Airlines and airports are battling over the use, regulation and management of wireless networks at US airports.

Airlines and airports are battling over the use, regulation and management of wireless networks at US airports.

A wireless network at Logan International Airport in Boston, a similar system at Denver International Airport (DIA) and others planned for the Raleigh-Durham International and Los Angeles International airports are at the centre of a fight over the unlicensed wireless spectrum used to support a wide range of applications, from passenger internet access to remote check-in kiosks.

When Logan turns on an airport-wide Wi-Fi network next week, airlines and their passengers will have to pay to use the network, something United Airlines views as an "unnecessary expense", according to Mike Mader, a ground systems radio engineer who handles Wi-Fi installations for United.

While passengers can choose whether or not to pay for access to Wi-Fi hot spots at Logan, airlines which use Wi-Fi networks to support key applications such as bag tracking, have no choice, according to Barbara Platt, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Massport, which operates Logan, requires airlines and other airport tenants to use the Universal Wireless Ethernet System (UWES) installed at the airport, Platt said.

United, a division of UAL, has installed its own Wi-Fi networks to support bag-scanning operations at a number of airports, including its Chicago hub. But Mader said the carrier will have to use the Massport network under the mandate imposed on all airport tenants. That is not as cost-effective as United installing and operating its own network, Mader said.

Platt said the UWES provides for better management of the wireless spectrum at the airport and "ensures Wi-Fi runs smoothly for all users".

TWI Interactive has developed the Logan network in partnership with Electronic Media Systems. TWI said its five-year contract guarantees Massport a minimum payment of $200,000 (£109,000) in the first year of the deal and as much as $300,000 in the fifth, up to a maximum of 20% of gross revenue. That revenue could exceed $1m a year.

Chuck Cannon, a spokesman for DIA, said payments from its Wi-Fi contractor, AT&T Wireless Services could run about $250,000 per month. Like Massport, DIA maintains that it needs to manage the Wi-Fi spectrum in the unlicensed 2.4- and 5GHz bands to ensure frequency and spectrum co-ordination, according to Jim Winston, director for telecommunications at the airport.

Jeremy Denton, director of government affairs for the Industrial Telecommunications Association (ITA), said that from his perspective, revenue - not frequency co-ordination - stands behind the move by airport authorities to control Wi-Fi networks.

The ITA is a trade group that counts among its members airport Wi-Fi users such as United, FedEx and United Parcel Service.

In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission in March, the ITA said that the "sole motivational goal" by airports to regulate Wi-Fi use "is to increase the airport authority's revenue".

The ITA has asked the FCC to issue a declaratory ruling against airports' attempts to regulate the unlicensed spectrum, saying they have no legal standing to do so under FCC rules.

While Denton would like to see the FCC rule quickly, he predicted that the agency would put the ITA filing out for public comment, a process that could take a year or more.

Massport's Platt and DIA's Cannon both declined to comment on the filing.

Bob Brewin writes for Computerworld

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