The End of Airport WiFi?

An interesting battle is going on in Boston over airport WiFi. If one side wins it may spell the end to WiFi in airports — at least those not operated by the airport itself. The Boston Globe reports that Logan International Airport officials’ ongoing quest to ban airline lounges from offering passengers free WiFi Internet services is angering a growing array of powerful Capitol Hill lobbying groups, who say Logan could set a dangerous nationwide precedent for squelching wireless services:

Soon after activating its own $8-a-day WiFi service in the summer of 2004, the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan, ordered Continental and American Airlines to shut down WiFi services in their Logan lounges. Massport also ordered Delta Air Lines Inc. not to turn on a planned WiFi service in its new $500 million Terminal A that opened last March. […]

Massport has consistently argued its policy is only trying to prevent a proliferation of private WiFi transmitters that could interfere with wireless networks used by airlines, State Police, and the Transportation Security Administration. WiFi service providers are free to negotiate so-called roaming deals, Massport officials say, that would let their subscribers who pay for monthly access use the Logan network. But major providers including T-Mobile USA have balked at Massport’s proposed terms, saying the airport authority seeks excessive profits.

It all sounds a bit lame to me. My experience of Logan’s WiFi in late 2004 was woeful, although perhaps that has changed, as Massport’s PR later said they were having teething troubles as it had just been installed. But it seems weak to argue that one WiFi service may not affect communications whereas others might;to charge excessively for it seems to suggest the real motive. If interference is the problem, will all those in-office WiFi networks in terminal offices be closed down, and will all onboard WiFi networks be banned too? What about buildings close to the airport?

The scary thing is that if Massport win this other airports are bound to leap aboard. And not just in the U.S. If airport authorities think they can make money out of this, I’m sure they will follow suit. I’m worried. Unless it means better and free WiFi in airports, in which case I’m all for it. Let’s face it, sometimes WiFi services are so bad in airports you feel as if it’s too important a commodity to be left to small bitplayers. More discussion of the issues here and here.

How To Build A Good Airport

I just want to sing the praises of Singapore’s Changi airport. I was upset to see a year or so back that they had discontinued free Wi-Fi —  now you have to pay, although many GSM operators have roaming agreements that give you a free access code to one of the airport’s Wi-Fi operators — but to me far more important is the availability of decent working desks with working power outlets and Ethernet cable slots.

Changi has recently upgraded these facilities but has yet to update its airport maps, so I was aggrieved to find that in my usual spot the number of tables had shrunk, and each was occupied with folk who looked like they were camping there for the summer. There was no one at the information desk but I did spot a feedback terminal, so fired off my complaint, saying folk like me try to transit via Changi because it’s a great place to get work done without having to shell out extra money, and that if I am in Singapore for any reason I try to get to the airport early knowing I can work there. (Offhand I can’t think of another airport that offers desks for people to sit at outside a business centre or business class lounge.)  I signed off with the usual threats about losing customers like me if they scaled back these facilities etc etc. (It had been a long day and I was facing blog withdrawal. )

Of course, immediately after doing that I stumbled upon a cluster of other desks — most of them unoccupied — so I felt slightly bad about it, but assumed no one would read my complaint anyway. So imagine my surprise when I heard back this morning from the Civilian Aviation Authority of Singapore:

We apologize for the inconvenience you have encountered while using the Laptop Access corners. We wish to clarify that we do have other Laptop Access corners located behind Giordano shop and Nexus Lounge at Terminal 1(21 workstations), near the GST Refund Counter at Terminal 2 (8 workstations), behind Sports Bar (16 workstations) and the iConnect at Level 3, Terminal 2 (15 workstations).

That’s good service in my view. Singapore really gets it right with Changi. It’s not too noisy, realising that travellers just want somewhere quiet they can shop, rest, and eat without noisy music and loud announcements. It’s got good facilities you don’t have to pay extra for, including quiet rooms with chaises longues, realising that transit and airport facilities should be built into the price of the ticket. And finally they realise that an airport reflects the country it’s in. It’s a gateway not just out but in, and through. If you make people feel they’re having a good experience they’ll leave impressed and come back. If you use an airport just to fleece people and make them feel harried, hustled and hassled, they’ll do their best not to pass through again.

The Airport Shuffle

I always find it slightly unnerving when people consider an airport a destination in itself. Waiting to check in for my ‘retimed’ flight at Singapore’s Changi Airport, i am engulfed by hordes of locals shuffling around the shops near check-in, wandering aimlessly and most of them apparently with no intention of meeting people, or checking in themselves (unless they arrived really, really early and travel very, very light.) So what gives?

Well, of course it’s the second day of Chinese New Year and everything in town is shut. This is the only place to buy stuff, get a decent bowl of noodles and escape the extended family for a few hours. These long holidays can be wearing. At least, that’s what I guess is going on; I haven’t asked anyone.

I could be horribly wrong, but I do worry when society makes malls our primary place of recreation and, as a backup, airport concourses. Sure, we want to get away from the heat/cold/rain sometimes, but is this all there is? Wandering around the skeleton-staffed airport shops buying stuff we know we could get cheaper in town tomorrow?