Airport Seeks Ban on Free Airline Wi-Fi

Boston's Logan Airport insists that it requested the shutdown of Continental Airlines' complimentary Wi-Fi service for safety reasons, but Continental has appealed to the FCC.

In their efforts to ban airlines from offering free Wi-Fi services in their lounges, officials representing Bostons Logan Airport continue to insist that its not about money, but rather about public safety and management.

The Massachusetts Port Authority, which charges a minimum of $7.95 per day for public Wi-Fi access throughout Logan Airport, sent a letter to tenant Continental Airlines Inc. last summer, demanding that the airline turn off the antenna that provided free Wi-Fi access to its President Club lounge in Logans Terminal C.

Continental Airlines offers complimentary Wi-Fi to its frequent flyers in more than 20 airport lounges throughout the country.

In response, Continental filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission last July, asking the FCC to overturn the order.

The FCC has yet to issue a ruling, but wireless and airline industry organizations have taken sides. The ATA (Air Transport Association) and CTIA (the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association) side with Continental. Local safety organizations and Airports Council International side with the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Officials representing Logan say that too many Wi-Fi antennas in an airport could be a safety concern, even though they acknowledge that dedicated public safety networks and WLANs (wireless LANs) generally dont share the same frequency.

But they argue that public safety agencies want to use Wi-Fi, too, and that a proliferation of Wi-Fi antennas in the airport could cause signal interference.

"Normally public safety entities run their networks on licensed frequencies," said Christine Gill, a partner with McDermott Will and Emery LLP, the Washington law firm representing the Massachusetts Port Authority in its case against Continental.

"We have tried to make it clear in the filings that this is not the backbone for the public safety network in the airport. They have their own proprietary networks that would not be subject to interference, but they want to make use of the Wi-Fi network, too."

Logan Airport argues that there should be only a single, centrally managed network for the public. "They actively manage the Wi-Fi network, they encrypt it, they offer control over it, and they can shut down the network in an emergency if they need to," Gill said. "Its a management function more than anything else."

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read about a Las Vegas airports decision to offer free Wi-Fi.

To wit, the Massachusetts State Police uses iPaq handheld devices from Hewlett-Packard Co. that run Wi-Fi, according to an October 2005 filing to the FCC.

"It could be true," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc., a consultancy in San Jose, Calif. "If there are devices using Wi-Fi on the tarmac for example, and Continental uses their own Wi-Fi and cuts the bandwidth through interference, there is a chance it could compromise the application."

Officials at Continental, which is headquartered in Houston, argue that it took Logan a full year to bring up any public safety concerns: Continental installed the wireless access point in its Logan lounge in the summer of 2004.

"To my knowledge, Massports letter of July 5, 2005 describing the potential threat to public safety is the first time Continental has been informed of such alleged safety concerns connected with our antenna at Logan," writes Robert Edwards, staff vice president of IT at Continental, in a sworn statement to the FCC.

"Continental has been told by Massport on one prior occasion of which I am aware that its frequency waves being emitted from the Presidents Club were purportedly allowing some customers at Massport access to our free wireless services when standing outside of our Presidents Club; as a result of this complaint, Continental lowered the frequency on the antenna."

At any rate, the airport debate is not likely to stay unique to Boston.

"If Massport somehow wins its case, its likely to open the door for future debates and lawsuits at other airports," said David Blumenfeld, vice president of marketing at JiWire Inc., a San Francisco company that keeps a directory of Wi-Fi hot spots.

/zimages/4/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.