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Atlanta airport opens massive Wi-Fi network

Atlanta airport opens massive Wi-Fi network

Atlanta's international airport officially opened a wireless network Wednesday that officials claim is the first airport in the U.S. to provide users with several choices of competitive wireless Internet service providers.

"Our network gives the customer a choice on service and price, while in other hot spots, the customer has no choice and only one service provider," Lance Lyttle, CIO at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said in an interview.

The Wi-Fi network has 150 access points covering all 5.8 million square feet of terminals and nearby areas, making it one of the largest ever built, he said. In many airports, Wi-Fi access is limited to smaller areas.

Equipment for the network, which cost about US$1.5 million to build, was provided by Cisco Systems Inc., Lyttle said. Combined with other network improvements, including new cell phone towers to support wireless voice and data calls and a new network operations center, the project is expected to cost about $4.5 million.

The three wireless Internet service providers at Atlanta's airport are Boingo Wireless Inc., Concourse Communications Group LLC and Sprint Nextel Corp. All have contracts with the airport authority, which owns the network, Lyttle said.

Having the three compete for customers has already brought prices down, he said. For example, before the official launch, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Boingo had been offering one-day access to the Atlanta airport Wi-Fi network for $9.95. When Chicago-based Concourse offered $7.95 for a single day, Boingo dropped its rate to two days for $9.95, Lyttle said.

Lyttle said business travelers make up half the foot traffic in the Atlanta airport and need Wi-Fi service as they wait for flights. About 21,000 users have signed up for Wi-Fi service since early September, when the network was launched in a trial phase, he said.

The airport is attempting to give business travelers a choice in access options, given that some users have purchased laptop cards for wide-area broadband wireless data access, he said. That was the reason for adding new cell towers, Lyttle explained. For Wi-Fi users, Internet access will also be enhanced with a fiber backbone that was installed in an earlier phase of the project.

The Wi-Fi network is designed to eventually support voice over Wi-Fi, he said.

In addition to public Wi-Fi service, the airport is offering separate access to about 800 airport workers, who can use the network for daily business operations, and to concession and public-safety workers, Lyttle said. Voice and video communications are expected to be important applications for public safety, he said.

While the Atlanta approach gives flexibility to users by allowing them to choose among several service providers or to choose wide-area broadband, it could be more challenging to IT managers who support different users seeking different services.

"A big issue in my opinion is how enterprises will control costs in light of all these options," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. To help keep costs down, corporate IT shops must profile user types, allocate dollars to each user type and then track the money spent on each access method, he said.

For security, IT shops need to make sure laptops and other devices used by their workers operate over virtual private networks and have firewalls, Dulaney said. Companies might even want to encrypt the data being passed, he said.

One benefit of having several wireless service providers is that a business traveler might have monthly service prearranged with one service provider and take advantage of smart clients that make connections easy, said analyst Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Inc. "If a user has a subscription to one of the new Atlanta-based services, they're more likely to use it," he said.

Analysts estimate that there are now about 60,000 Wi-Fi hot spots in the world, including many at major airports.

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