DIA Deploys Free Wi-Fi

By Ed Sutherland

December 17, 2007

Denver International Airport has deployed a new 11n network throughout its 1.5-million-square-foot facility. Is this the way of the future or a flash in the pan?

Next to lost baggage and long lines, Wi-Fi is one of the most common features of today’s airports. Not so frequently seen is free Wi-Fi access; travelers usually pay for airport access, either through a subscription or a day-pass. Denver International Airport (DIA), however, set a new standard last week when it became the largest American airport to offer free Wi-Fi.

“We found that many airports have begun offering free Wi-Fi, including Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other smaller airports along the U.S. west coast,” says DIA spokesman Jeff Green.

Colorado Springs, Centennial, and Vail airports also offer free Wi-Fi in Colorado. However, Denver is the largest of an exclusive club. Only six of the top 50 airports offer free Wi-Fi, said Piero DePaoli, product manager for iPass. iPass manages Wi-Fi networks that allow travelers, primarily businesspeople, to use one username and password wherever they travel within the iPass network.

Free Wi-Fi taking off in airports

DIA spans just over 53 square miles making it the largest international airport in the United States. Roughly 40 million air travelers pass through each year, landing it in the top five busiest U.S. airports in 2006. That’s a lot of people potentially looking for Wi-Fi. DePaoli said Wi-Fi in airports has become “key.”

For the past five years, AT&T had charged $7.95 a day for public Wi-Fi access and T-Mobile operated hotspots in some airline lounges. DIA turned to Meru Networks after the AT&T contract expired to deploy 802.11n draft 2 across 60 access points.

“A lot of consumers feel they are being nickel-and-dimed to death," says Henry Harteveldt, a Forrester Research travel industry analyst.

To help fund the network, DIA is working with FreeFi, a Wi-Fi advertising service that places video ads, which appear before a person logs onto the Internet, and then also displays an ad atop the screen throughout the session.

Free Wi-Fi prompts increased usage

According to Green, DIA has seen usage increase tenfold since the free network was deployed. In his view, DIA’s decision to provide free Wi-Fi will likely be replicated by other airports.

“We believe that many more airports will begin to follow suit as they plan large capital improvement projects to expand and update their passenger facilities,” said Green.

For Wayport, which had partnered with AT&T at the Denver airport, “There’s free and then there is free,” according to Dan Lowden, the company’s vice president of marketing and development. If the switch to free Wi-Fi isn’t done correctly, the move will be an “expensive proposition” for the airport, as flyers encounter spotty coverage, Lowden warned.

Despite the trend toward free airport Wi-Fi, neither iPass or Wayport seem concerned.

“It doesn’t keep me up at night,” said Lowden.

Ed Sutherland is a veteran Wi-Fi journalist, having covered the industry for Wi-Fi Planet and other Jupitermedia sites since the advent of 802.11b.



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