Airports ground use of wireless

Safety, loss of income from pay phones cited

Airport operators already control the airspace in their regions. Now they want the airwaves, too.

Baltimore/Washington International Airport last week became the latest airport to clamp down on the public wireless LAN industry as well as on cellular carriers that operate on airport turf. Their concern: wireless interference with other systems, but also a decline in pay-phone revenue that has prompted some airports to look for ways to seek income from wireless technology.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport earlier this year declared a 90-day moratorium on wireless installations, until it can develop a regulatory and business strategy. BWI hasn't issued a formal ban, but John Linz, acting director of the airport's IT division, said he would deny any requests for installation of wireless LANs or cellular phone microcell sites within the airport until BWI has a contract in place for a third-party provider.

BWI took the step to prevent interference with air traffic control and security systems, eliminate signal interference between wireless LANs and maximize revenue. According to Mike Beeler, assistant vice president of business development at MobileStar Network Corp. in Richardson, Texas, maximizing revenue from phone-toting travelers who no longer use pay phones is another airport concern.

"We had an installation in Atlanta [temporarily] shut down last year . . . and in a meeting [there, we] were told [the airport operators] are losing $7 million a year in revenue from pay phones due to cell phone use," Beeler said.

Dylan Brooks, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. in New York, said, "Every airport is trying to figure out how to get a cut of the revenue" from wireless, with the drop in their share of pay-phone revenue definitely playing a part in the decision to target wireless.

Putting the same restrictions on public-access wireless LAN carriers and cell phone companies "means wireless LANs will suffer," Beeler said. That's because wireless LANs, with their low power output, have to be in the airport, whereas cell carriers "can just put up a tower outside the airport" and still get adequate coverage, he added.

Linz said generating revenue was part of BWI's plan. But "we see this as a major safety initiative," he added. Linz said a neutral third party, such as established aeronautical services company Arinc Inc. in Annapolis, Md., would better serve customers.

Compounding the problem are the airlines, which are in a race to provide wireless Internet access for their customers. American Airlines Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, last year signed a deal with MobileStar to install wireless LANs in 49 airports (see story). Delta Air Lines Inc. in Atlanta is looking for a partner to deliver broadband wireless service at major hubs this year.

There is concern that publicly managed airports can't move fast enough for the airlines. But BWI said it will award a contract for its wireless LAN within three months.

BWI's intention to manage cellular phone installations caught that industry unaware. But a spokeswoman for New York-based Verizon Communications Inc. said the company could serve airports with off-premises towers because "our technology has become more sophisticated."

Beeler said the cell phone carriers and the wireless LAN industry have more than BWI to worry about, with airports in Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and Charlotte all in the process of defining policies to control all wireless communications, including cellular phones, at their facilities.

Reporter Michael Meehan contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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