Mission Critical Wireless at the Airport

By Gerry Blackwell

March 17, 2004

Toronto's Pearson Airport is doing Wi-Fi differently, providing wireless access to the administration before it goes to the public.

Next year when visitors fly into Toronto, the city's main international airport, Pearson, operated by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), should be lit from stem to stern for Wi-Fi access.

Hewlett-Packard Canada is in the process of building one of the most ambitious Wi-Fi networks in the world at the airport's new Terminal 1, which is scheduled to open in April.

HP, the network integrator on the project, won the tender from GTAA last year. It is installing a network that will eventually cover the entire facility from top to bottom, wall to wall, and right out to the apron, the area where aircraft park.

It is using Wi-Fi infrastructure equipment from partners Cisco Systems , Bluesocket, and Packeteer.

The GTAA is taking a slightly different approach to Wi-Fi. The first application will not be public access. Airport administration applications will come first, many of them legacy applications that are being extended into the wireless realm, many mission critical.

"This is not a Wi-Fi hotspot," says Victor Garcia, the managing principal in HP Canada's Mobility Program Office. "It's a secure, safe, mission-critical wireless network that will be fully redundant. For instance, all areas will be covered by at least three access points."

Garcia can't divulge too many specifics on the network architecture, but it will include "hundreds and hundreds" of access points, he says, though fewer than a thousand.

"In the majority of airports in Canada and the U.S., people have only deployed access for the public," Garcia says. "To provide access for somebody to get their e-mail and browse the Internet doesn't carry the same requirements as a network for mission-critical applications."

So the GTAA is doing it "exactly backward," he says. Once a network is built to support the airport applications, it will easily meet the requirements of a public access service.

What kinds of administrative applications are planned? Baggage reconciliation is a new one that comes out of heightened security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

To ensure that all the bags checked onto an aircraft -- and only the checked bags -- are loaded, baggage handlers equipped with Wi-Fi-enabled bar code readers will take inventory in the belly of the plane, something that could not easily be done before.

The data will be compared against a manifest from the airline and if it tallies, the plane will be cleared. If not, well, expect delays.

Another application is reporting from the apron on refueling operations. This is currently done using paper. The data is later keyed into computer systems. It's information vital to a number of operations -- billing to the airlines from the fuel companies being one. Official confirmation of refueling must also be sent to the control tower.

"If you replace [the paper process] with mobile devices carried by the fuel company employees, they could key in flight number, airline company number, number of liters or gallons loaded - and instantaneously update a central database," Garcia explains.

"Then the information is available for reporting and reconciliation, including to the control tower. And that translates into efficiencies."

European airports that have taken the approach that the GTAA is taking claim savings of 10 minutes per day per employee from installing a wireless network.

"That may not sound like much," Garcia says, "but when you multiply by 2,500 employees, it amounts to millions of dollars saved."

That's not just from a couple of applications like baggage reconciliation and refueling, of course. Building and/or Wi-Fi enabling applications, though, is not HP's job, Garcia points out.

"I don't really know how many applications there might be eventually. Applications are the domain of the airlines or tenants. But there could be hundreds - point of sale retail, refueling, car rental, ground control, messaging, voice, video."

The wireless infrastructure is all 802.11b, but with an upgrade path for the future to support rich media applications, Garcia says.

At this point, though, the Terminal 1 WLAN, which is being built at the same time as the terminal itself, isn't even complete, much less the applications that will ride on it. Some sections of the network have been signed off on, he says, but it won't be finalized until at least the projected opening date of April.

Then there are three other airport terminals to unwire. They will be completed over the next year or so.

The public access service at Terminal 1 should be running this year. "Right now, the priority is to open the airport and make sure the main applications are running properly on the network," Garcia says. "But then we can proceed fairly quickly to public access."

HP might be managing the service, though Garcia can't talk about it at this point.



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