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Nearly 15 million airline passengers per year pass through Dallas Love Field, one of Texas’s largest airports. Like most air travelers around the world, visitors to Love hope to make their connections—their data connections, that is.
Airports are often where people most need to communicate, whether to get an update on flight information, check in with the office, or reach out to family. But like many airports, Love hasn’t always been able to ensure high-speed Wi-Fi® and cellular access for its visitors. During busy times, conventional Wi-Fi networks are slowed by thousands of people tying in at the same time and in the same area, many of them running high-bandwidth apps like music streaming, video meetings, and photo sharing. Meanwhile, airports typically have weak cellphone signals because phone carriers aren’t allowed to place cellphone towers anywhere near runways.
Airports aren’t the only places leaving users frustrated with slow or unreachable networks. Wi-Fi and phone carrier service are often weak or stretched thin at busy locations. “Whether in an airport, a stadium, a manufacturing facility, or an office building, most people want better connectivity,” says Derek Peterson, an engineer who serves as chief technology officer at the global network services provider Boingo.
Everyone complains about network speeds, but in 2018, Love did something about it. Working with Boingo, Love became the first major US airport to install a private LTE data network—essentially equivalent to running a private phone company in the airport. This network provides the same sort of high-speed data connections people are used to from their phone carriers, at least when they have a good signal.
For the airport’s network technology, Boingo and Love enlisted OnGo, an industry standard for the 3.5GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, a currently underutilized piece of the radio spectrum. Using CBRS avoids having to try to license part of the spectrum used by phone carriers—an option far more costly and, in many areas, unavailable at any price. The OnGo network was so leading edge that Boingo and Love had to request a special temporary license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to run it, with the understanding that the network was an experimental one to prove that it could operate without interfering with phone carrier and other signals. “We can adjust the signal power so it’s strong enough to blanket the location but not too strong that it causes problems for outside networks,” explains Peterson.
Just one hitch exists: Because CBRS is a new technology, most phones can’t access it right now. But 90 percent of smartphones will be ready to access CBRS by 2023. According to Peterson, CBRS networks are expected to become a major resource at venues worldwide over the next few years, placing Love far ahead of the game. Aside from helping to prove to the FCC that the networks can operate effectively without interfering with phone carriers, Love’s network has become an important resource for the airport’s internal operations. When the public’s phones are CBRS-equipped, Love’s network will be ready to serve them. Moreover, the network can easily be upgraded from LTE to the newer, higher-speed 5G standard rolling out around the world.
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In the meantime, Love is taking other measures to ensure high-speed data access at the airport. The private LTE network is just one component of a three-pronged initiative to solve the connection problem. Love also boosted cellphone service for visitors by setting up a distributed antenna system (DAS)—a series of mini cellphone towers scattered throughout the airport to pass on stronger signals from major carriers. And Love upgraded its Wi-Fi network to Passpoint®, a Wi-Fi standard allowing phones to jump onto the network without any sign-on.
Love’s efforts provide an advanced look at where data access is heading everywhere, says Peterson. That future, he explains, is one where access to high-speed connections is much more fluid and efficient, with phones constantly and seamlessly switching in the blink of an eye between different cellphone bands, private phone networks, and Wi-Fi networks to hunt down the best connection.
At the same time, he adds, the cellphone system won’t limit a carrier to a specific piece of the spectrum or to particular cellphone towers and equipment in the future. Instead, he says, spectrum and equipment will be dynamically allocated moment to moment to whichever network needs the extra capacity. “You don’t always have to build new networks,” says Peterson. “The existing networks can communicate with each other and with phones to create the right connection for the traffic at a given location and time.”
These changes should make all airports—along with other busy, data-starved venues—places where people can get the fast connections they have come to depend on. Your flight might still be late, but at least you’ll be able to let others know and watch a movie to pass the time.
David H. Freedman is a Boston-based science writer. His articles appear in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Discover, Marker by Medium, and Wired, among many other publications. He is the author of five books, the most recent being "Wrong," about the failure of expertise.
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