Atlanta's international airport has a large Wi-Fi hot spot that gives travelers a choice among several competing wireless Internet access services and is part of a wider upgrade of the facility's network infrastructure.

Competition makes prices come down
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the first airport in the US to offer Wi-Fi services from rival outside vendors, claimed chief information officer Lance Lyttle. The competition has already brought prices down, he said.

For example, before the official launch, Boingo Wireless Inc. had been offering one-day Wi-Fi access to users for US$9.95. When rival Concourse Communications Group LLC offered a daily price of $7.95, Boingo cut its rate to two days for $9.95, Lyttle said.

Users get cell data as well as Wi-Fi
In addition to installing the Wi-Fi network, the IT staff at Hartsfield-Jackson has added cell towers to support both voice calls and users who have laptop cards for wireless broadband data access instead of Wi-Fi connections.

But the availability of more choices could add to the burden on IT managers who support e-mail and Internet connectivity for business travelers and who should be monitoring their remote connections to keep costs from getting out of hand, said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner.

"A big issue, in my opinion, is how enterprises will control costs in light of all these options," Dulaney said.

He added that to help keep costs down, companies must create profiles of different user types, allocate money to support each type of user and track what is spent on each access method.

Working with existing Wi-Fi
The Wi-Fi network in Atlanta has 150 access points covering all 5.8 million square feet of terminals and nearby areas, Lyttle said. Cisco Systems provided the equipment for the network, which cost about $1.5 million to build.

Combined with other network improvements, including the addition of the cell towers and a new network operations center, the airport is spending a total of about $4.5 million, according to Lyttle.

Some airlines already have their own Wi-Fi hot spots that work only near their gates at the airport, Lyttle said. The airport-wide network was designed not to interfere with the existing ones, he noted.

Lyttle said that about 21,000 users have signed up for Wi-Fi services at the airport since early September, when the network began operating on a trial basis.

The three Wi-Fi providers are Boingo, Concourse and Sprint Nextel. Each has a contract with the airport authority, which owns the network.

Internet access via Wi-Fi will be enhanced by a fibre-optic backbone that was installed in an earlier phase of the project, Lyttle said. He added that the network is designed to eventually support voice over Wi-Fi and that airport officials are assessing the needs of business travelers for that technology.

In addition to public Wi-Fi services, Hartsfield-Jackson is offering separate access to about 800 airport workers for daily business operations and to shops and public-safety employees, Lyttle said. Voice and video communications over Wi-Fi are expected to be important applications for public safety, he noted.