Airports invested a record $9 billion on IT in 2016, according to SITA, with mobile solutions accounting for a big portion of the global spend as the industry continued to look for new ways of catering to the connected passenger.
From mobile ticketing to instant flight updates, there has been an explosion of technology everywhere we turn – and it’s only the beginning!
Airport wireless networks are at the heart of satisfying passengers’ voracious mobile appetites. Today, travellers primarily rely on wireless connections to check social channels like Facebook and Instagram; stream sports, TV and music apps such as Spotify and HBO; and download large files from the office.
But looking ahead, airports will turn to their wireless networks to more aggressively integrate m-commerce strategies that tap into mobile to recoup some of the cost of providing seamless connectivity.
By 2019, SITA estimates that 84% of airports will enable purchasing of airport services through their mobile app, and 29% plan to extend purchasing of airport services to passengers’ Smartwatches.
And it doesn’t stop there, as the dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT) will also impact on wireless network strategies.
In the future, ground operations, security checkpoints, runway monitoring, baggage handling and building management are all functions that will be transformed through a network of internet-connected objects that rely on embedded sensors to collect and exchange data. And it will all be tied back to the passenger experience.
For example, startups all the way up to major consumer brands like Samsonite are developing smart luggage with the IoT in mind. Suitcases are now being equipped with features such as GPS tracking, fingerprint locks, weight notifications and proximity sensors.
Airlines are also starting to lead the charge by implementing connected beacons during the baggage handling process. This, in turn, gives airlines the ability to transmit baggage proximity information to customers at bag drop and baggage claim, improving confidence in an area that has traditionally lacked passenger-savvy tracking.
Wireless connectivity is central to the passenger journey and as technology continues to evolve, even the most advanced airports will be challenged to respond to digital shifts in the industry.
To stay ahead and not fall behind, here’s a summary of the top wireless trends every airport should take note of.
Wi-Fi reimagined: Hybrid networks and Virtualisation
While major airports have embraced Wi-Fi to better serve travellers and their crave for connectivity, we are now entering a new era of airport wireless that merges both free and paid models – not one over the other.
The growing trend is to offer passengers more choice and control and move away from Wi-Fi networks that are a one size fits all approach. For example, the Wi-Fi requirements of an occasional leisure traveller who gets online to check email or update Facebook are vastly different from those of a business passenger who wants the network to function as an extension of the office. Networks should be flexible to meet each passenger’s individual needs.
Hybrid Wi-Fi networks can enable an experience that is fast, multi-platform, analytics-driven, responsive and tiered. Airports can secure these benefits by upgrading networks with the following features: WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) security encryption; tiered services with varying speed and bandwidth levels; actionable insights such as queue management, pathing and wayfinding; content management system (CMS) tools; and device flexibility across Smartphones, tablets and laptops.
As it relates to speed, remember that speed alone does not equal an optimal user experience. Networks need to be packed with features that provide a combination of speed, density and coverage for seamless connectivity.
Wireless infrastructures should also take Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) into consideration. NFV is a new technology that is receiving heightened attention for its ability to eliminate the need for expensive hardware and physical infrastructure, while reducing capital expenditures (CapEx) and operating expenses (OpEx).
To create a truly ubiquitous connectivity experience for travellers – one that removes the headaches of Wi-Fi log-ins and other frustrations – airports are adopting Passpoint.
Passpoint is a new set of wireless protocols that enable seamless, secure, automatic Wi-Fi access, with no user action needed. The technology has the power to fundamentally change the way consumers connect to Wi-Fi, doing away with public Wi-Fi network log-ins and browser redirects, dramatically improving the experience of connecting within an airport.
Travellers with a Passpoint profile installed on their device can enjoy an automatic connection with the fastest Wi-Fi speeds available at the venue from the moment they enter the airport.
Passpoint networks also provide a WPA2 encrypted connection automatically, ensuring enterprise-level security, with no additional software or Virtual Private Network (or VPNs) needed.
Airport IT teams should do a full survey of their current network to determine Passpoint readiness. Passpoint networks require hardware supporting the Hotspot 2.0 technical specification created by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which makes the seamless hand-off between networks possible.
Networks that have not been upgraded in the last three or more years might need updated access points installed. Networks that have been updated with new access points in the last 18-24 months may be able to support Hotspot 2.0 with a quick firmware upgrade.
Passenger concerns tied to the cost of domestic and international mobile roaming fees is building. Airports can be the connectivity hero by alleviating these concerns with networks that enable Wi-Fi offload. This approach also opens monetisation opportunities through carrier agreements.
The top priority of a carrier is to provide fast and uninterrupted connectivity that their customers come to expect, but in high-traffic venues like airports, this can be jeopardised due to high-volume usage that puts extraordinary pressure on existing cell towers and infrastructure.
To address the ongoing mobile data explosion, carriers are exploring converged networks that leverage Wi-Fi offload features via Passpoint.
With Passpoint, the infrastructure is in place to deploy transfer between cellular and Wi-Fi without sacrificing the user experience. As the automatic connect feature augments connectivity, it can be paid for by a primary service provider – like a wireless carrier or cable operator – as roaming onto Wi-Fi networks can be more cost effective then moving customers onto roaming cellular towers.
To offset network costs, airports can also turn to advertising solutions that offer sponsored Wi-Fi sessions. Brands are attracted to sponsorship campaigns as they offer several screens of exclusive, high-impact interactions with appealing demographics.
Going beyond Wi-Fi: Tapping cellular DAS networks
Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) are finding a home in major airports to boost mobile phone coverage and complement Wi-Fi networks.
DAS solutions solve capacity and coverage issues by deploying hundreds of small antennae throughout the airport and integrating them into a cohesive cellular network.
These individual antennae can be turned up or down, easily adjusting to provide additional capacity when it’s needed most, whether for holiday travel or summer vacation season.
A well-designed DAS set-up can also limit interference, ensuring that all sectors of an airport have equal access to cellular connectivity. Further, cellular DAS networks can help offset costs by bringing in carrier participation.
Convergence is key
When sorting through the wireless toolbox, airports will be hard pressed to opt for both Wi-Fi and cellular solutions. Wi-Fi and cellular working in tandem is called network convergence, which provides more throughput, reduced latency, better coverage and lower costs.
Network convergence is a win-win as the wireless platform lays the necessary foundation for airports to answer the demand for more mobile data and wireless connectivity.
The world of wireless comes with many promises, but to make it a reality, airports must lay the necessary network foundation to power seamless connectivity.