Over the last decade, air travel has transformed. As passenger and customer numbers increase post-pandemic, we can see what we considered high-tech for airport and airline operations at the beginning of the millennium, or even a decade ago, already looks somewhat outmoded.

Tom Bennett, CTO at connectivity infrastructure-as-a-service provider Freshwave

Passengers’ expectations in their normal lives now carry over into what they expect when they get to a terminal and in flight too.  

Nowhere is this rapid pace of digitalisation more critical than in the provision of mobile connectivity – but it comes with challenges.   

The modern airport is a shopper’s paradise, containing everything from pop-up pretzel stands to designer boutiques. This means that the radio planning required for these enormous complexes (that is to say, making sure each area has the right mobile coverage and capacity) is not dissimilar to that of retail malls.

Learning from retail malls

The key connectivity challenges are the same too: airports contain a series of small businesses and a captive but essentially transitory audience who’ll pay for instantaneous convenience. Different users have their own connectivity requirements, and these need to be catered for simultaneously.  

Much like shopping centres, major airports have very high footfall. This leads to significant demand for data from passengers as they communicate with loved ones and use the endless number of apps needed to keep them occupied while waiting for their flights.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData
Visit our Privacy Policy for more information about our services, how we may use, process and share your personal data, including information of your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications. Our services are intended for corporate subscribers and you warrant that the email address submitted is your corporate email address.

With the advent of 5G in 2019 and its ongoing adoption since then, increasing mobile data consumption should be a consideration alongside the ongoing change and digital transformation programmes undertaken by airport CIOs.     

The gigantic size of some airports is another issue. They require infrastructure that provides connectivity for passengers, businesses, and airport operations and staff over large areas, from the central terminal hub all the way to the gates.

How should airports meet these challenges?

The industry standard solution is through a distributed antenna system (DAS). This is an in-building public connectivity system, which allows passengers to move around a large indoor space and use their phones and the internet as they would outside.

This is also the system that airport vendors can use to stay online and make sales. A well-designed DAS can deliver service coverage from all mobile network operators.

However, passenger needs and retail requirements aren’t the only connectivity challenges for airports. There is a wide range of operational and mission-critical communications that need to take place so that airports can safely and efficiently carry out their own operations.

As well as providing a good customer experience, airports must track luggage from check-in to conveyor belt to the cargo hold, provide push-to-talk communications across multiple airport teams, and facilitate the downloading of every aircraft’s telemetry data upon landing – all at the same time, with no room for error. And that’s just a very small sample of the range of services needed.

A mobile private network (MPN) is a powerful enabler for airports looking to automate, digitalise and innovate operations and services. 4G and 5G MPNs are built specifically for an organisation’s needs and give them full control of service quality and all devices able to access the MPN. They also enable wide area coverage both indoors and outdoors, where Wi-Fi alone won’t necessarily be the best option for the job.

As their name suggests, these networks are private and therefore incredibly secure. They can also fulfil specific functions, such as being deployed to provide wireless connectivity within an aircraft hangar so that technicians can access schematics in real time, using augmented reality technologies to fix plane fuselages.

These highly technical use cases are perfect for MPNs, thanks to their low latency and guaranteed quality of service. 

Stacking the network

For an airport CIO looking to build an internal business case for the first foray into an MPN, we recommend taking a use case “stacking” approach.

To fully realise an MPN’s benefits, they should identify and aggregate all the activities and services that could potentially be supported by the same network infrastructure, and calculate the potential cumulative return on investment.

This gives a more consolidated picture of demand for network and service providers, and can reduce the pressure on an individual use case to justify the cost of the network or service, maximising the value that can be gained from a single deployment.

So use cases could include: speeding up the passenger journey by having biometric check-in and boarding data processed faster; providing assured operational communication systems for the airport’s teams; baggage tracking and other asset tracking, to name just a few examples.

The UK Government has encouraged use case stacking in its new UK Wireless Infrastructure Strategy (WIS), published in April this year.

And should a use case be identified later on, once the MPN is already operational, it’s still possible for it to be added as the MPN can be remotely configured in the majority of cases. This makes them extremely adaptable to an organisation’s needs. 

Recent policy developments centred on wireless technology, such as funding for the development of new telecom technologies such as open RAN, show that progress in this area is a clear priority for the UK government.

Wireless communications are only going to grow in importance in years to come and to ensure they remain competitive, airports must continue to embrace digital connectivity and its power to drive innovation and efficiency.