“It was fast enough to work, but it wasn’t up to today’s standards,” says David Prince, IT Director for the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, which ­oversaw a Wi-Fi upgrade at the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport in Kentucky.

Feb 01 2022

U.S. Airports Boost Their Wi-Fi to Improve Travelers’ Experience

Transportation authorities respond to demands for wireless broadband with new tech.

Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport is giving travelers what they crave after they weave through the busy security line and reach their boarding gates: fast and free Wi-Fi.

The Kentucky airport is modernizing its wireless network with Wi-Fi 6 access points. With blazing-fast Wi-Fi available by the end of 2021, business travelers can download large files or join a videoconference, while vacationers can stream or download movies and music before their flights. And they can do it all with no buffer and plenty of bandwidth to spare.

“Our goal is to be the best airport in the country,” says David Prince, IT director for the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, which operates the airport. “Over the past decade, passengers expect internet access to be available, and this is our way to make that customer experience as top-notch as possible.”

High-quality Wi-Fi is a key amenity for airports throughout the country and can provide a competitive edge, particularly in metropolitan areas where travelers have multiple airports to choose from, says Norm Rose, Phocuswright’s senior technology and corporate market analyst for the travel industry.

Demand for broadband access at airports has dramatically increased over the past five years, he says. Business travelers depend on solid wireless connections to access cloud-based applications, while leisure travelers — particularly millennials and Gen Zers — demand high-speed internet to access apps, websites and videos, he says. Airport employees and airlines also use Wi-Fi for business operations.

“It is mandatory that airports have broadband Wi-Fi and not just Wi-Fi,” Rose says.

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Louisville Airport Upgrades Network to Wi-Fi 6

Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport needed to bolster its Wi-Fi because its existing Cisco APs, inherited from a third-party provider, were about a decade old.

While the airport has always managed its own in-house Wi-Fi for employees, a third-party provider previously offered passengers 20 minutes of free wireless, but it charged people for faster or longer service. 

In 2018, the airport took over and sought to upgrade its access points for the fastest Wi-Fi possible, Prince says.

“It was fast enough to work, but it wasn’t up to today’s standards,” he says.

To beef up the wireless, the airport standardized on Cisco Catalyst 9130AX Series Wi-Fi 6 APs and is doubling the number of access points from 36 to 72. That covers the entire 625,000-square-foot property, including terminals, administrative buildings, maintenance facilities and the fire station.

David Prince, IT Director for the Louisville Regional Airport Authority
Over the past decade, passengers expect internet access to be available, and this is our way to make that customer experience as top-notch as possible.”

David Prince IT Director for the Louisville Regional Airport Authority

On a typical day, 5,500 to 7,000 passengers depart and arrive at SDF. But the airport authority’s IT department and its consultants designed the new wireless network to handle up to four times that number to accommodate its busiest day of the year, which is the Sunday after the Kentucky Derby, Prince says. In 2019, 28,000 passengers flew in and out of SDF the day after the race.

To manage the Wi-Fi, Prince installed two new Cisco Catalyst 9800 Series wireless controllers for redundancy. 

To protect internal applications and data, passengers and business guests of the ­airport authority will use the wireless in two separate service set identifiers that don’t touch the IT ­infrastructure. “It will be locked down and segregated for direct internet access,” Prince says.

To provide the best customer service, the public Wi-Fi network is on its own dedicated internet feed: a 2Gbps circuit. The wireless network, which was expected to go live in late 2021, will also remain free and unlimited.

RELATED: How are city and state governments expanding Wi-Fi access?

Tamp Airport Gets Access to Speedy New 5G Services

Tampa International Airport not only offers free, high-performance Wi-Fi but in late 2020 it also became the first airport in the country to offer mmWave 5G cellular service from the three major cellular carriers, including AT&T, airport officials say. 

In 2018, airport officials decided to install a distributed antenna system to improve cellular service. Previously, the airport relied on surrounding carrier tower networks, but that didn’t provide enough coverage and capacity, says Marcus Session, TPA’s vice president of IT services.

TPA worked with a communications infrastructure provider that built the DAS by installing 800 5G and 4G antennas and running about 50 miles of fiber and copper cables throughout the airport campus. Now, the three major cellular carriers have ­connected to it to provide significantly improved cellular service, Session says.

2.32 Gbps

The speed of AT&T’s 5G+ wireless ­connections at Tampa International Airport

Source: Tampa International Airport

In January 2021, AT&T rolled out its 5G+ service at TPA and announced plans to make 5G+ available to additional airports over the next few years. The airport says Verizon and T-Mobile also began offering 5G service for its travelers in early 2021.

“We offer Wi-Fi, which is great, but it was important to provide a better experience on the carrier side of the house,” Session says. “Passengers may not want to take time to connect to Wi-Fi.”

EXPLORE: Follow these tips when building public Wi-Fi networks.

Delivering a Robust and Reliable Airport Wi-Fi Experience

To get on the Wi-Fi, users must click on a user agreement. TPA has deployed more than 430 Cisco Aironet 802.11n APs, which are managed by several wireless LAN controllers. The number of APs fluctuates at any given time because of airport construction, Session says. TPA’s Wi-Fi network is robust, with speeds averaging 2.32Gbps, but Session is researching the value proposition of Wi-Fi 6 for the future.

Overall, supporting fast and reliable mobile connectivity via Wi-Fi or 5G is important because guests must pull up their mobile flight information quickly on their smartphones, he says. In addition, today’s travelers have business productivity and entertainment needs that benefit from the faster speeds.

“When people come here, their phone is their comfort and can help reduce any anxiety they could have during travel. In a lot of cases, it has your life and everything else on it,” Session says. “We want to make sure we provide the same level or better experience at the airport than they have at home.”

Photography by William DeShazer

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