The Curious Conundrum: Free Airport Wi-Fi
With all this attention to aircraft connectivity and Wi-Fi, the IFExpress team kicked around how the subject of user universal cell data and free Wi-Fi might affect the airborne application. Airline passengers seeking Internet access progressively upon their journey (at the airport, on the airplane, and in their hotel room) are confronted with different value propositions and with even more varied actual performance levels. Naturally, the subject of airport Wi-Fi came front and center because it represents a situation where a traveler may have a bit of free time, flying anxiety may be somewhat present, and travelers usually have a bit more cash on-hand. In the past, we interviewed the Sea-Tac (Seattle) Airport Authority and they were quick to point out that they were one of the earliest providers of free passenger Wi-Fi. We wanted to be sure they got their kudo’s for their belief that connectivity is most important for travelers, and this was some four years ago! Since the airport is the jumping-off place for plane connections, we wondered if there were any industry opinions on the subject so we called the AirCloud folks (Gary Schmidt & Peter Lemme to be exact) and our interview with them went like this:
IFExpress: How important is accessing the Internet to a passenger waiting at an airport?
AirCloud: It’s their second most important connection! Today, airports can effectively serve their transient clientele. Check-in, security, and gates are conquered with speed and ease, trapping passengers to their respective gates. Having first served the needs of the airplane, attention now has been lathered upon the passenger left
wandering, gushing with merchants, drinking, and eating. A snack or light meal, a beverage, a new magazine or a local souvenir; sooner or later, we all end up sitting around waiting for our flight to depart. At this point, ‘I wonder if I will make my connection?’, has a whole new imperative. Look around anywhere people are waiting and take note of what is drawing their attention. Print media is evident, but more likely it will be a phone or a tablet. Calls, games, social applications, messaging, browsing, and media are all attractive distractions. Our minds thirst for stimulation: we want to connect and we want to be entertained.
IFExpress: So you agree that airport Wi-Fi is a growth market, but doesn’t that get expensive given the Wi-Fi data throughput involved?
AirCloud: There are two practical strategies for Internet access at an airport for passengers using their own device (BYOD): passengers can connect through their own cellular connection or use a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP). Both can suffer from collective demand exceeding capacity within portions of their network and their backhaul capacity to the Internet. The greatest bandwidth demand comes from “over the top” (OTT) streaming, limiting the available tools the WISP or cellular provider have to manage the experience and to temper the consumption.
IFExpress: But who pays for Internet access?
AirCloud: If cellular, the customer pays; if WiFi, the ISP (or airport) pays. Cellular plans frequently have usage limits with substantial overage charges if exceeded. WISPs are free to provision whatever peak bandwidth capacity they can afford. While modest screen sizes on early smartphones matched similarly modest streaming bandwidth, contemporary smartphones and tablets are capable of rendering 1080p video at 8 Mbps or higher. It’s an arms race between the service providers and consumers seeking the best video experience. Every time the service providers improve their data rates, the consumers step up their demand. OTT providers use adaptive streaming, rather than a fixed download encoding. Adaptive streaming automatically shifts streaming rates to match the available network and client capacity, designed to stress the Internet connection at the highest levels. If every passenger streaming experience was, for example, 720p at 2.5 Mbps, then 10 passengers would utilize about 25 Mbps. One hundred passengers would consume 250 Mbps. One thousand passengers would consume 2.5 Gbps. 1080p doubles or triples streaming data rates from 720p. At CES 2013, the latest 4k video displays were promoted which would utilize streaming rates 10 times higher than 720p, even with emerging H.265 encoding. Wireless capacity shrivels with an onslaught of people streaming, while Internet access charges skyrocket. The result can be an expensive, unsatisfactory experience.
IFExpress: Can’t airports simply restrict the data rates to keep the data throughput down or are their better options?
AirCloud: Solutions that levy restrictions and limitations are necessary for fair access. Factor in unpredictable experiences and the situation cries out for salvation. With modest capital investment and through clever and innovative programming, there is a savior. Local content delivery relieves Internet connections from their greatest burden, streaming content. This alone can dramatically improve the overall experience, as now the browsers get the bandwidth and the streamers have no impediments. Managing the streaming experience permits controlling data rates to adapt to collective demands, offering each viewer the best experience within the capacity of their local subnetwork.
IFExpress: So we gather that controlling the service (Wi-Fi) locally is a good thing? Can it pay?
AirCloud: Being part of the infrastructure affords greater insight into proximate offerings. Promotions can direct the passenger to merchants nearby – a call to action! Real-time information can be relevant, compelling, and useful. Social postings can create a shared experience, engaging their temporal associations within each flight. Gaming can add another social channel with one-on-one and team play. Passengers cycle through their various applications, but familiarity spawns a hunger for something new. Media bites can offer access to new titles of which they were otherwise unaware. Specialized product offerings can satisfy demands earlier unknown. Passengers must find compelling local content to forgo OTT services. Keeping the most passengers engaged for the most time presents multiple challenges requiring many different offerings. Tying these offering into a cohesive, intuitive, and fun experience opens incremental revenue opportunities through commercials, impressions, commissions, and the direct sale of premium content. Monetary success is dependent on having compelling content, relevant promotions, and a simple user interface.
IFExpress: Do you see a future where all airports offer a managed free Wi-Fi service?
AirCloud: Every passenger at an airport has a boarding pass with a destination clearly printed. When logging on there may be no destination; it’s all about discovering something new. Maybe specific destinations can be reached in surprising ways. Connecting can satisfy curiosity, a desire to explore and discover. Locality gives powerful insights unlocking cost saving, superior user experience, and new revenue. Managed Internet access coupled with local content delivery enhances the passenger’s experience.
Editor’s Note: More than just airplanes, we discovered, AirCloud offers localized services at airports, on airplanes, in hotels, virtually everywhere.