The US heartland is a popular stumping ground in an election year and Des Moines International is the politicians' portal to get there. Reporters covering such rituals as the Iowa caucuses noticed a difference this year at the Iowa state capital's airport, however. Last October Des Moines went live with its airportwide wireless LAN with coverage in the terminal, ramp areas, concourse, car rental lots, general aviation lobbies and some private hangars.

William Konkol, chief aviation technical specialist at Des Moines, says it wasn't uncommon in years past to have 25 reporters looking for Internet access on any given day when election season heated up. That changed this year. "Shortly after the system was online, the Iowa caucuses were held and we saw Wi-Fi usage from all major news agencies as they filed their stories at the airport," he says. Wi-Fi, an acronym for wireless fidelity, refers generically to any network using the 802.11 protocol.

In addition to helping campaign-trail reporters, the upgrades have put Des Moines at the forefront of airports that have installed comprehensive facility-wide WLANs that give passengers and tenants the ability to reach the Internet wirelessly with appropriately equipped laptops and PDAs. That's the tip of the iceberg; airports are exploring other amenities that include network printing, adding location-based services that can direct passengers to ATMs and stores or allow nearby vendors to send out a targeted advertisement and creating ways that passengers can download movies and video games and make phone calls using voice-over-Wi-Fi.

Airlines can use the technology for curbside check-in, baggage tracking and reconciliation and ramp operations. Concessionaires can use it for point-of-sale systems and inventory management, and security agencies can use it for streaming real-time images to PDAs and secure instant messaging, among other things.

Specialists like Konkol are helping to shape the wireless landscape at their facilities largely through two independent activities: Selecting Wi-Fi integrators and vendors through the RFP process and refereeing tenants who want to install and use their own local wireless networks.

Des Moines selected Opti-Fi Networks Ltd. to design, install and operate its network. Tim Barrett, president of Opti-Fi, a grouping of Airpath Wireless, ARINC and Parsons, says that in addition to performing site survey and building and managing the network, the "neutral host" company also furnishes "settlement" services-aggregating any other airport-approved provider and its customers into the network.

Barrett claims that is one of the advantages of selecting a neutral provider as opposed to a branded wireless company with an existing customer base. "Some airports choose a provider that doesn't have the ability or desire to aggregate other providers into the network, preventing that provider's customers from using their IDs and passwords in the system," he notes. The bottom line, he says, is that more than 500 wireless Internet service providers and several major wireless carriers can have their customers use the networks Opti-Fi operates. The Annapolis, Md.-based company manages Wi-Fi networks at airports including Newport News, Albany, Toledo, Jackson Hole and Mobile.

While airports have the option of installing and operating WLANs on their own at a cost that experts say ranges from $300,000 to more than $1 million depending on the size of the airport and its existing infrastructure, most choose to contract out the work. Richard B. Snyder, senior VP-business development for neutral host Wi-Fi integrator Concourse Communications Group, says the cost of installing the systems varies based on how much of the infrastructure exists. The revenues coming back to the airport are generally some percentage of the Wi-Fi usage fees with or without a minimum annual guarantee. He says 19 of the top 50 airports by enplanements in the US have airportwide Wi-Fi in place or are installing it and another six have RFPs on the street. Of the 19, he says 11 have neutral hosts.

In addition to the plus for passengers, the revenue can be substantial-minimum annual guarantees of $250,000 are not uncommon for a large facility. Usage fee revenues are increasing as more passengers try the services; Snyder says he is seeing double-digit growth month-over-month in all of the private and public common-use networks Concourse manages, including New York LaGuardia and JFK, Newark Liberty, Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The trend at smaller airports is much the same. Though Des Moines had just 1.8 million passengers travel through its terminal last year, Konkol says Wi-Fi usage is double what the airport had predicted. Most of the activity is coming from business travelers who he says log on in the airport's business center when first arriving, move through screening, then log back on at the gate. The business center has hard-wired ports at 10 workstations for passengers whose computers do not have wireless adapters and an Internet kiosk for those who do not have laptops. "We have had comments from frequent travelers to Des Moines that they check out of their hotel room early to get on the Internet at the airport business center," he says.

The airport board made the decision to install the infrastructure three years ago partly because passengers increasingly were becoming equipped with wireless devices and partly because of inquiries from airlines and three rental car companies who wanted to access a common system. Two of the rental car companies did not have local wireless systems for checking in cars and one had installed a privately owned Wi-Fi system with a base station and two handheld units, a setup Konkol says typically costs about $20,000. American Airlines was using a wireless system for curbside check-in and wanted to convert to the new network as well.

What passengers see when they log onto the public access network portal is a selection of Opti-Fi service plans ranging from one-time use at $2.99 for the first 15 min. and $0.25 per min. thereafter to $9.95 a day for unlimited use at several airports to a monthly access plan priced at $39.95 and usable at nonairport hotspots as well. Concourse's fees are session-based, topping out at $6.95 a day.

For virtual private network services, Barrett says the Wi-Fi company or airport can be a "traffic cop," guaranteeing service and throughput for an airline, for example, by parsing out certain accounts and giving customers priority over other traffic. Opti-Fi provides such a service for WestJet Airlines at several airports in Canada.

Having control over the traffic also gives the airport the ability to prioritize bandwidth to put public safety at the top. In one application, Des Moines has a mobile unit (Airport One) with a built-in Wi-Fi laptop. During winter weather operations, a common occurrence there, an operations officer can monitor surface temperatures, check glycol levels at the storage farm and issue real-time weather-related Notams from the vehicle. Before Wi-Fi, a critical Notam to close a runway or alert pilots of low traction would use the "sneaker net"-an operations person on the field would write down the information, drive it back to operations, type it up and group-fax it to a long list of people with an immediate need to know. With the remote Wi-Fi, one operator in the field can send the information directly to the fax machine and receive confirmation that the grouped faxes were sent.

In another application, the Transportation Security Administration at Des Moines is using the private network to update screening point wait times on the terminal's flight information monitors via PDAs.

Konkol says the airport should be able to recoup its investment in less than three years based on its share of usage fees. The payback could be accelerated if the airport decides to sell advertising space on the portal page, a process he is looking to Opti-Fi to implement. To get the message out about Wi-Fi, Des Moines advertises the service on its website and through the FIDS ("This is a Wi-Fi zone"). Konkol says it plays an Opti-Fi flash file on its public monitors and has "one guy that walks around with brochures and hands them out to people who are using laptops."