Tulsa airport looks to clamp down on wireless use

Add the Tulsa International Airport in Oklahoma to the growing list of airports around the nation planning to more closely manage wireless service on their premises. That means tighter controls on the use of cell phones and wireless networks used by laptop-toting travelers, and even on communications by airline employees.

Lex Rutter, information and communications services chief at the Tulsa Airport Authority, said the airport is seeking a central, third-party manager for all wireless operations on airport property and plans to issue a formal request for proposals (RFP) by July.

Close management of the unlicensed 2.4-Ghz band used by wireless LANs is essential to head off conflicts between competing users, Rutter said.

American Airlines operates a 10,000-employee maintenance base at Tulsa International and plans to deploy wireless LANs to support its operation of that facility. At the same time, public-access wireless LAN providers such as MobileStar Network Corp. in Richardson, Texas, want to use the same band to provide high-speed service to the traveling public.

Tulsa International also wants to better control the use of cell phones, "because we have run out of space for towers," Rutter said.

In addition to allowing for better management of the airwaves still available, clamping down on wireless transmitters helps ensure that the airport doesn't exceed strict Federal Communications Commission guidelines for emissions, Rutter, said.

Kin Barker, president of CDI Communications Consultants in Houston, said revenue is driving the move by airport authorities to regulate cell phone carriers. CDI has technology consulting contracts with a number of major U.S. airports.

"The airports have naively been taken advantage of for years by the cell companies," Barker said. He noted that the typical lease for a cell phone tower on airport property -- or a micro-cell site installed in a ceiling panel -- used to be between $800 and $1,000 per month. That's an "egregious" figure, considering the revenue such towers or micro-cells can generate, Barker said.

The airports now want to be "fairly compensated" by carriers such as New York-based Verizon Wireless Inc. and Cingular Wireless in Atlanta, said Barker, estimating that major airports should be receiving between $30,000 and $50,000 per year from the wireless companies.

More than money is involved, Barker said. Airports need to better manage wireless LANs to avoid potential conflicts between public systems and operational systems used by airline or airport personnel. (Those systems are used, for example, so employees can match bags loaded onto aircraft with passenger manifests.)

Tulsa and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which plans to issue its own wireless third-party RFP within 90 days (see story), aren't isolated cases, Barker said. Other airports want to control their wireless destiny. Airports in Detroit and Chicago now have similar RFPs in the works, and CDI is evaluating responses to an RFP from the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. A wireless manager is expected to be selected next month.

Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless carrier, believes "it is well within the rights of airports" to manage wireless activity on their premises, according to spokeswoman Andrea Linsky. While Verizon wants to "work with the airports," she said, "We'll go elsewhere" if agreements prove difficult to reach.

Barker dismissed that possibility. "I hear that all the time . . . and maybe they can serve Chicago Midway from a tower outside the airport," he said. "But how are they going to do that at an airport as big as Dallas-Fort Worth?"

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Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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