New Year, New Tech: An Airport’s Guide to 2017 Connectivity Trends

Ginni Rometty
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Digital is not a destination. It’s a foundation.” This famous quote from Ginni Rometty, IBM CEO, accurately portrays the reality of today’s business community. There has been an explosion of technology everywhere we turn — Internet of Things, virtual reality, ride sharing and other on-demand services — making digital-first strategies paramount to survival.

When zeroing-in on the airport and aviation industry, much credit should be given to the sector’s commitment to innovation. Mobile ticketing and Wi-Fi are commonplace for many airports. Further, in just the last few months there have been exciting roll outs of robot staff members who serve as automated assistants for passengers looking for food, directions and even help snapping a selfie. The best part? Airports embracing new technologies are improving traveler experiences while simultaneously creating new revenue streams.

As we enter 2017, technology will continue to evolve and even the most advanced airports will be challenged to respond to digital shifts in the industry. To stay ahead and not fall behind, there are five major tech trends every airport should analyze as part of its business strategy.

Data Demand: It Keeps Growing and Growing

Not every tech prediction pans out as expected, but if there’s one safe bet, it’s to get behind the fact that mobile data consumption will continue to spike in 2017. Cisco forecasts that global mobile data will reach new highs in the new year and increase eightfold by 2020. Over the next three years, we’ll see 90 percent of American households owning three or more connected devices, with 75 percent of mobile data traffic coming from video. These are significant increases that will require airports to plan for today’s mobile demands, while building networks that can scale for the future.

Customer-Centric Philosophies Win Out

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) found in a new survey that 97 percent of respondents are using smartphones to enhance travel experiences. Additionally, almost half of respondents flagged that they prefer a travel experience customized to their preferences and would be willing to share personal information for travel providers to create a more tailored experience. These numbers don’t lie and it’s clear that passengers want unique interactions and enrichment while passing through to reach their final destination.

Focusing on the customer experience through technology will be more important than ever before. By 2020, Gartner predicts that 85 percent of business relationships will be managed by the customer without any human interaction. Consumers appreciate the efficiency and speed of self-service tools and desire self-help solutions and automation. Airports have made strides with feeding this demand with deployments that include self-tagging baggage kiosks and mobile ticketing, but we’ve only scratched the surface. Looking ahead, we can expect to see more airport concessionaires take advantage of m-commerce and Wi-Fi advertising platforms to drive customers. There will also be a proliferation of more personalization in apps such as location-based push notifications and serving customers an automated “thank you” message after making a purchase.

Omni-channel customer support will also be key because travelers are vaulting from one channel to another. The human element of customer service cannot be overlooked as it adds a personal touch, but airports will more broadly adopt communication strategies across SMS texts, social media, online chats, voice and general online knowledge libraries, such as an FAQ web page.

Wi-Fi is Not One Size Fits All

Research from Ovum shows that 80 percent of data consumption is on Wi-Fi. While major airports have embraced Wi-Fi to better serve travelers and their crave for connectivity, we are entering a new era of airport wireless that merges both free and paid models—not one over the other. The growing trend is to offer passengers more choice and control and move away from Wi-Fi networks that are a one size fits all approach. Airports will increasingly adopt new models that feature tiered classes of Wi-Fi service because consumers have different needs when it comes to connectivity. This allows airports to offer free Wi-Fi service to support email or casual Web browsing to one user, while offering a premium class of service designed to address the needs of an enterprise user.

Boingo for example deploys tiered Wi-Fi networks at more than 20 airports, offering varying connection speeds up to 50 Mbps. In a typical deployment, airports offer three popular classes of service with different economic models: complimentary, supported by an ad platform; transactional for the occasional tech-savvy traveler; and subscription for frequent business travelers who need the airport to serve as an extension of their office. Prominent airports utilizing Boingo’s tiered approach include Logan (Boston), O’Hare (Chicago), JFK (New York City), LaGuardia (New York City), and Newark.

Passpoint Adoption Creates Seamless Connectivity

CNET recently provided readers with a step-by-step guide for making public Wi-Fi convenient and secure. While it has useful tips throughout, many view them as time intensive and tedious. The good news is seamless auto-authenticating Wi-Fi can be achieved at airports through a much easier process thanks to the revolutionary launch of Passpoint, a new technology that is now primed for the spotlight.

Passpoint is a set of wireless protocols that enable seamless, secure, automatic Wi-Fi access, with no user action needed. Passpoint networks have the power to fundamentally change the way travelers connect to Wi-Fi, doing away with public Wi-Fi network log-ins and browser redirects, dramatically improving the experience of connecting at an airport. Developed by a joint task force of leading wireless industry trade groups and more than 75 of the world’s biggest wireless providers, including AT&T, BT and Charter Spectrum (formerly known as Time Warner Cable), the Passpoint standards are finally moving rapidly from years of lab testing to venues like airports, hotels and convention centers.

To create a truly ubiquitous connectivity experience for passengers—one that removes the headaches of Wi-Fi log-ins and other frustrations—airports should plan for Passpoint adoption. Consumers with a Passpoint profile installed on their device can enjoy an automatic connection from the moment they enter the airport or step out of the cab.

Passpoint networks provide a WPA2 encrypted connection automatically, ensuring enterprise-level security, with no additional software or Virtual Private Network (or VPNs) needed. With several IEEE 802.11 security features, Passpoint transforms the security position of devices connected to hotspots with guaranteed mutual authentication and over-the-air encryption, as well as restricted peer-to-peer traffic, helping to protect sensitive information such as passwords, bank account numbers and personal information. Additionally, the end-to-end authentication protocols ensure unauthorized users and mobile devices are filtered out, while also protecting authenticated mobile devices from connecting to rogue—and potentially unsafe—hotspots. In short, travelers get connected faster to a safer network—a game changer for today’s connectivity experience.

Today, airports including JFK, Midway (Chicago) and LAX have adopted Passpoint and in 2017 we will see more follow suit.

Wi-Fi Offload Will Address Roaming Challenges; DAS Expands

To alleviate the ever-growing pressure mobile broadband puts on existing cell towers that service airports, more traffic will be offloaded from cellular networks to Wi-Fi to provide the fast and uninterrupted connectivity travelers have come to expect. This will especially be an important trend for addressing consumers’ growing concerns tied to the cost of domestic and international roaming fees.

Airports will further adopt converged networks that enable Wi-Fi offload and fuel new monetization opportunities through carrier agreements. When transfer between cellular and Wi-Fi is deployed, it can be paid for by a primary service provider, like a wireless carrier or cable operator, as roaming onto Wi-Fi networks can be more cost effective then moving customers onto roaming cellular towers. For example, Charter Spectrum’s roaming agreement with Boingo gives millions of Charter customers access to Boingo’s “Passpoint Secure” Wi-Fi networks, saving users on expensive data and roaming charges.

Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) have found a home in airports as more and more large venues turn to the technology to boost coverage and complement Wi-Fi networks. DAS solutions solve capacity and coverage issues by deploying hundreds of small antennae throughout the airport and integrating them into a cohesive cellular network. These individual antennae can be turned up or down, easily adjusting to provide additional capacity when it’s needed most, whether at the height of the holiday travel or low season. A well-designed DAS setup can also limit interference, ensuring that all sectors of an airport have equal access to cellular connectivity.

Key milestones for 5G will also surface, showcasing test deployments of connections that rely on licensed and unlicensed technologies. These advancements will give airports a view into what they can come to expect with 5G and what it means for their venue—truly converged networks that boast higher speeds and capacity; lower latency than existing cellular systems; and greater flexibility.

Technology is ever changing, but airports that embrace connected traveler behaviors and plan for the exponential mobile data growth of the future will stay ahead of the curve.

Scott Ewalt is the product and strategic customer experience lead for Boingo's global suite of retail products and services. He oversees Boingo's “Customer 360” strategy, including customer care, the implementation of CRM, and the integration of all customer touch points and engagements, including social, chat, voice and email. He previously worked in customer acquisition for Move Inc., the operator of Realtor.com, a News Corporation company, and as a media planner and buyer for MediaVest and DavisElen Advertising.

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New Year, New Tech: An Airport’s Guide to 2017 Connectivity Trends