Kennedy's Wireless Issues

By Adam Stone

June 07, 2004

Deploying the Wi-Fi network at the JFK Airport meant overcoming obstacles and still might not lead to much of a pay off in the end, but operator Concourse Communications is optimistic.

There are airports, and there are airports. As New York's busiest flyway, John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) handles over 30 million passengers a year. That's a lot of Wi-Fi coverage, if wireless is what you want.

"Airports are mini-cities. You don't just have passengers. You have airlines, you have concessions, you have a need for corporate networking," explained Joseph A. Beatty, president of Concourse Communications Group, which in May threw the switch on Wi-Fi connectivity throughout about one-third of the passenger areas at JFK. Beatty said he expects to wireless-enable the rest of the airport within the year.

This is hardly the first airport to implement Wi-Fi. Concourse Communications alone already has installed wireless connectivity in Detroit and Minneapolis, as well as in the New York metro area's other two airports, Newark and LaGuardia. Observers say JFK is different, if only by the size of the venture.

Does size equal profits? Partners in the JFK venture are divided as to the revenue potential. Right now users pay one of several WISPs $6.95 for 24 hours of usage, and Beatty said he anticipates eventually forming more extensive ties with providers such as Sprint, iPass and Boingo. "Over time we think that will be most of the traffic," he said. "My expectation is that this is the reality of where the market is going to head."

Airport operators are cautious as to whether such ties will pay off.

"We are going to make money off of it. How much? That's another thing. I think a lot of people have overstated the potential revenue" of public Wi-Fi, said Tom Ternquist, manager of wireless planning and design at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "Primarily we wanted to have it as an amenity, to be competitive with other airports."

Putting that amenity in place was no small feat. "It's an expensive proposition. It's not like at home, where you plug in a $100 router and now you are wireless," said Beatty. To make it work in an airport of this size, "you need multiple access points, extensive routers and switches, central authentication servers and so forth."

Nor does it stop there, according to Bill Adams, CEO of Wi-Fi systems integrator G5 Technologies. "You certainly have line of sight issues, and you are limited in where you can put the antennas. In a place like JFK, in such a big metropolitan area, you may have interference issues that you have to contend with. So there is a lot to think about in terms of how you implement the architecture," he said.

Business issues also can compound the complexity.

With so many commercial entities operating under one roof, "the key was really in communicating with the airport people, explaining what they were doing, making sure they were cooperating with the airline carriers," Ternquist said.

In most cases carriers allowed Concourse Communications exclusive rights to implement the network, rather than deploying their own wireless arrangements. To win the support of airport vendors, meanwhile, the Wi-Fi welcome page soon will carry coupons and information about terminal retailers, Ternquist said.

There was one notable exception to the generally cooperative spirit, however. Discount carrier JetBlue has put in place its own wireless network at JFK, offering free access to travelers, Beatty said. He admits this offering complicates the revenue situation.

"It is problematic. It devalues the services in order to help them sell tickets," he said. As for the long-term impact, "it's hard to predict. There is a tug of war going on in free versus pay, and we certainly have the ability to sell advertising on our splash screens [if the public demands free access]. That certainly can work here. Either way can work here, but for now I think it's going to be a pay service."

In these early days, it so far appears that the public is indeed willing to hand over the cash.

LaGuardia say 2191 Wi-Fi transactions took place in May, and Newark saw 2,526 transactions, Ternquist said. These figures represent a 50 to 60 percent increase over the prior month. In its first month of operation, meanwhile, the JFK Wi-Fi offering had 287 transactions.

Heartening numbers, in Ternquist's view. "So far it looks very promising this year," he said.



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