The underlying reason for airports and airlines' clashing perspectives on the installation and management of airport wireless networks can be summed up in a few words: "Airports can be served by 20 or 30 airlines; each airline can serve hundreds of airports."

These differing perspectives, described by Tom Browne, ATA senior MD-industry and airport services, at the recent Wireless Airport Assn. conference in Washington result in airports developing systems optimized for their individual needs and business philosophies, forcing airlines to cobble together a long line of innovations to allow their networks to work with the airports' many iterations on the theme. Further, these adaptations must evolve as airports upgrade their systems to maximize their revenue potential and meet their customers' needs, and airlines are only one segment of that customer group.

While carriers are sensitive to their passengers' desire for wireless service, especially Internet connections, they place an emphasis on building systems that meet their own business needs. Binu Joseph, American Airlines' acting manager-enterprise technology services-mobility solutions, says the demand for wireless covers nearly every aspect of an airline's airport operation: Curbside check-in, roving agents, clubs, maintenance, crew ready rooms, aircraft and cabin support services, kiosks, baggage reconciliation, cargo and the US Postal Service. Noting that "75% of our employees do not have a fixed work location," he says AA favors Wi-Fi for wireless connections in operations and back-office uses although its limited range cannot cover an entire airport.

On the passenger side, "for high-frequency business travelers, Wi-Fi is now an expectation, not a surprise," says Tom Fulton, Delta Air Lines' online sales and service GM. A Wi-Fi connection is "a way to retain customers." He sums up the conflict in serving passengers, especially in the club lounges: "We choose to have the user experience consistent throughout all 40 clubs; some airports are pushing for an airport experience. We choose to disagree." He adds that carriers would like to control wireless at their gates as well, but acknowledges that more cooperation with airports is warranted in public areas.

The key battleground in this dispute in the US is the Federal Communications Commission, where Continental Airlines is fighting Boston Logan's effort to blanket the airport, including club lounges, with its own service. CO, relying on FCC's Over-The-Air Reception Devices rule, believes it has the right to erect its own service for its club. Massport saysand most airports agreethat in the restricted terminal area and with limited frequencies available, the possibility of interference from the CO installation threatens the "safety and security" of the airport.

The Transportation Security Administration, in fact, has tested its own Wi-Fi at Logan and is considering it for regular use, says Deborah Lau Kee, Massport's associate deputy counsel. But there's another major reason, captured in the wording ACI-NA provides in a model FCC comment filing: "Any [FCC] action should not restrict [an] airport's ability to provide Wi-Fi service." One commentator restated that from an airline's perspective, "Massport wants a monopoly in Wi-Fi."

Some airline officials at the conference were privately irritated at the "safety and security" argument because even though security forces are developing systems employing the same frequency spectra as commercial users, a spectrum in the 4.9GHz range dedicated to security and "first responder" purposes has gone unused.

Beyond variations in the technical aspects of a wireless installation is the variety of business models airports are using. Las Vegas McCarran has set the bar at a level few even want to attempt. Starting with a $3.4 million investment in 1995, the airport constructed a data backbone of copper and glass fiber, says Gerard Hughes, airport network manager. Then it installed a wireless Aruba Network, dedicating some of the thin access points for public use, others for PIN-activated airport business operations. The system also can detect rogue APsunauthorized wireless installationsand electronically disable them, although disabling would be an extreme action, he says. McCarran even installed wireless-linked CUSS kiosks and, unique in the US, adhered to the IATA standard. Hughes is expanding the system to cover the ramp and airplane-side services.

Finally, the airport decided to provide free Internet access over the system it owns and maintains. "It was simply the right thing to do," he says. McCarran is not allergic to revenue and sells advertising on the system, collecting $80,000 during the 4-6-week pilot program alone. But airlines are not universally happy; largest operator Southwest still has unresolved issues and Continental is having to do a lot to make its COBRA baggage system work. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International recently wrapped up a four-year development effort when it commissioned its wireless network, which Lance Lyttle, CIO of the Dept. of Aviation, calls "the first truly neutral host multi-Wi-Fi service provider (WISP) system for public and private [i.e., airport business] use." WISPs are invited to sign onto the system, which the airport owns, giving the WISP network operations center direct access to the airport's NOC for fast servicing of problemsa rarity in the industry. All terminals, along with the intra-airport trains, some 5.8 million sq. ft., are covered on a fiber backbone using a system of APs and distributed antenna system boosters.

ATL's opening Internet page provides free access to a number of airport information zones, plus the available WISPs for Internet access. So far, three WISPs have signed on. The airport charges them a set price per connection with volume discounts. The WISPs already are engaged in pricing competition just as ATL had hoped, Lyttle says.

Dallas/Ft. Worth has yet another model at work, said William Flowers, VP/CIO. It entered into a Wi-Fi partnership with T-Mobile HotSpot with the airport owning the fiber network that is DAS-assisted. T-Mobile acts as the neutral host, with room for up to seven WISPs. "We've got to have just one system . . . it's a no-brainer," Lyttle says. American can't complain, however, since its system is the same as that adopted by DFW.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is overseeing the installation of systems at Reagan Washington National and Dulles airports developed on the "concession-based model," says George Ellis, VP-information systems and telecommunications. MWAA's Common Wireless Access System is aiming to provide service to all terminals and garages.

Ellis says MWAA chose the concession model to get around restrictions in budget and staff and to keep from having to tie down operations and maintenance funding with upkeep costs. The vendor will provide a minimum annual guarantee. Telecom carrier teams hold the concession, with Nextel acting as the lead carrier managing and maintaining the network. Service will start in the public areas, with IAD due to become operational in first-quarter 2006 followed by DCA in the third quarter, Ellis says. There is no target time for eventual ramp coverage.

Airlines most want clarity in the wireless environment so planning can be based on something other than best guesses. Jeff Rae, United Airlines' enterprise architect, saying, "the interface issue is key to us," hopes for some help from a wireless code of conduct being developed by a committee at Airports Council International-North America. That code, says Richard Marchi, ACI-NA senior VP-technology and environment, is being circulated in draft form for industry comment. A second source of clarity would be a clear resolution of the Massport-Continental dispute, airline officials agree.

But in the end, much of the maneuvering might be a lot of fuss over very little. A number of new technologies are either in the early introduction phases or coming soon that will blanket most airport terminals with longer-range services that can be positioned off airport properties, overlaying the inherently short-range airport wireless systems. The first customers likely to be lured away from airport-provided wireless will be passengers sticking with subscription services used elsewhere. And while the business side will be substantially stickier, ultimately many of these users may migrate as well.