Unified communications takes off

Profit is the order of the day -- especially if you run an airport. Faced with huge capital costs and losses from airlines throttling back operations -- airport earnings are diving. Mumbai airport's CIO says he can help: by using unified communications on a scale unheard of in India, he plans to generate revenue. But can it do the trick?

In 2003, after endless rounds of political maneuvering and countless agitations against the privatization of major airports in the country, the Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport became part of a global fraternity of airports run by private stakeholders. The airport is India's busiest, with 22.2 million passengers and 480 tons of cargo passing through its doors in 2006-2007.

Among other decisions that were made at the time was to set up an IT department at the operations center of the new terminal. It was a decision that stakeholders of Mumbai's airport may well be thankful for in two years.

That the new terminal would need innovative communication technology was a foregone conclusion. Airports around the world were gearing up for the future and the Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) was presented with a chance to do some catching up. "The Indian economy has been growing at a phenomenal pace over the last few years...An airport is the face of a city. So it is critical that India, as one of the largest economies in the world, is be able to [create] a first impression," says Sanjay Reddy, MD, MIAL in an interview.

Studying other international airports like those in Munich and Montreal, the newly appointed head of IT, T.P. Anantheswaran decided he could do better. The challenge, as far as he was concerned, was not to rub shoulders with the rest but to stand head and shoulders above them. He decided that he could do that by stoking his communication system to generate revenue.

But whatever he planned also needed to ensure that the airport would be set to meet the needs of the next two decades and maybe even longer. "It (the communication backbone) had to accommodate the traffic we will see on this network going forward," he says. The challenge, he adds was to cater to increased passenger traffic -- from 18 to 40 million -- and increased cargo from four lakh tons to 10 lakh tons annually.

As Anantheswaran ticked off everything that would be required from the system, one observation emerged: the airport's communication infrastructure needed to meet the needs of a service provider -- a large step away from its traditional role.

"Once, airports were just space providers. Airlines put in their own IT. But, with the massive growth in passenger numbers and with airports facing a major space crunch, the need for common-use infrastructure has become epic. Today, airports have to be an unifying service provider," he says.

Unified communications (UC) seemed a logical fit largely because it would allow airport planners to merge and streamline services -- an apt philosophy when you're embarking on a huge project. "This (need for common infrastructure) made the management team at MIAL decide that everybody needed to ride on a single infrastructure," Anantheswaran recollects.

"As an infrastructure service provider at the airport, a robust IT network plays a key role," says Reddy.

But the common infrastructure/service provider approach had one hitch: the airport needed to ensure as close to zero downtime as possible. If, for example, a lack of connectivity disrupted check-ins, it would have a telescopic effect down the entire line operations, delaying everything.

Going UC would need bold decision making. But the time was ripe for bold revenue-making decisions.

Turbulence Ahead

To say that the Indian aviation industry is going through some turbulence would be a euphemism. They have been in so much trouble and have received so much media coverage that ATF has become water cooler conversation.

The rising price of airline fuel, about 30 percent of an airline's cost, is hurting more than just the airlines. As managers at airlines battle to keep their business afloat, they're beginning to up prices, consolidate, and trim the number of destinations they fly to. Air Deccan recently withdrew 18 flights, SpiceJet cut the number of its flights by about a sixth. Go Air went from 1,000 flights a month to 800. Jet Airways has stopped flying routes like Mumbai-Nagpur and Mumbai-Ahmedabad.

These cutbacks affect even hot destinations like Mumbai airport, which used to handle about 740 flights a day before the fuel crunch, and is now down to about 650. Since airports make a substantial amount of their revenues from these flights, airports are beginning to feel the pinch.

Anantheswaran saw a way to help. With UC he would have 100 percent network availability for applications such as a single backbone for voice, video, CCTV, data and radio. He could charge airlines for many of these services. He also envisioned wireless hotspots, self-service portals, and video conferencing booths, which he could charge passengers. Additionally unified communications could help streamline airport processes and infrastructure -- and reduce cost.

Anantheswaran looked at others who had trod the UC path before him. There were none in India -- not at the scale he was attempting. The Halifax Stanfield International Airport was a possible role model. The airport had implemented UC in 2006 to run a network of voice, video, data and wireless communications on a single, airport-wide system. It took Halifax two years to achieve full ROI and it also saved US$15 million (about Rs 60 crore) in space.

Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport, which handles over four lakh passengers everyday and is among the world's busiest airports, also worked with UC. For this airport, UC added value in terms of enhanced passenger, baggage and network security. It also improved operational efficiency and flexibility, lowered overhead costs, introduced revenue opportunities; and improved network reliability.

Munich International Airport, Athens International Airport, and Sydney International Airport, Anantheswaran found, were all on their way to completely unifying their communications.

But Anantheswaran was not looking to copy these airports. He wanted more. "We were clear that we wanted to leapfrog and put in the best technology." His plan would also need to meet the additional requirements that eventual expansion would bring. For example, by the end of 2008, the airport plans to bump up its 3,600 CCTV cameras to 6,000. With each camera requiring at least one Gbps of bandwidth, Anantheswaran knew he should prepare now or pay later.

Rubber Hits the Runway

Ground zero looked bleak. To begin with, when Anantheswaran took over, he didn't even have a team. Neither did the airport have structured cabling, or IP network infrastructure, which meant that everything would have to be started from scratch.

In terms of technology, Anantheswaran was clear of two things: the network he was building must have 99.999 uptime and it had to be created so that it could be used by multiple airlines and their passengers.

The choice of technology partner was an important issue. It came down to two giants: Nortel and Cisco. But as Anantheswaran points out, MIAL found a better fit with Nortel. "We evaluated both Cisco and Nortel," he says, "but we wanted to be a service provider rather than an enterprise, and while both were ok technology-wise, Nortel understood our requirements much better."

It also helped that MIAL got access to Nortel labs, he adds, which helped the airport develop some customizations that were unique to MIAL's requirements. "Whatever [we] did not have, [Nortel was] willing to commit resources, time and money to develop it. So that tomorrow... we can claim that we are the best in the world," remembers Reddy.

The infrastructure that the IT team finally chose uses a Metro Ethernet Network portfolio's Optical Metro 10G DWDM (Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing) fiber-optic backbone, a multi-service platform and Metro Ethernet Routing Switch 8600 platform with Provider Backbone Bridges (PBB) and (Provider Backbone Transport) PBT solutions. The backbone allows 10G Ethernet and storage connectivity, and should significantly reduce the airports capital expenses while simplifying network management and optimization. The PBB/PBT technologies are used to provide VPN and point-to-point Ethernet transport services for the airlines. PBT enables carrier-grade reliability and ease of management with great efficiency and control.

Because of stringent security requirements the IT team at MIAL decided against IP-VPN. "These are not secure enough," says Anantheswaran. "What we are building is a L2 VLAN, which means that even as an airport, even as a provider, I cannot sniff into the network."

Using this, each application and device on MIAL's network is identified, and only these devices can send traffic. This way no one can introduce or remove devices from the network. It's a provision that no customer has yet asked, which shows how far ahead MIAL is.

On the Wings of Profit

But more importantly, the UC network introduced the airport to a space saving mechanism it desperately needed. With one of the highest property costs in the world, the space that every additional check-in counter ate up hurt.

"[This airport] is right in the heart of the city of Mumbai. Space has always been a constraint because it is an island," says Reddy.

The common check-in counters -- referred to as Common Use Terminal Equipments or CUTE -- will go a long way in helping solve this space crunch. UC's single communication platform allows any airline to use any counter -- not a fixed counter like airlines are traditionally used to. By just logging into the network, an airline's check-in staff can access the various devices that they normally used. So, no matter which counter they use, their telephone extension, for example, follows them. Without UC, airline counters could not be used inter-changeably, which meant that every airline needed three or four counters to itself -- necessitating large amounts of valuable airport space.

Crucially, the UC-enabled CUTE system also enabled airports to expand the number of counters an airline used to meet sudden surges in passenger traffic, since empty counters could be deployed quickly. This helps reduce the crowd in a pre-check in holding area.

The network can also support Common Use Self Service (CUSS) kiosks for passengers who would like to check-in themselves. On the airline staff front, employees could employ VoIP for their use -- an area that was targeted for revenue generation.

In addition, the network will leverage advanced UC communication services like SIP-based presence, IM, collaboration, conferencing and messaging and RoIP (radio over IP).

MIAL also plans to use the network to create revenue in different ways. These include passenger processing services, telephonic services (including VoIP), data services and data center services, which are all given out on rent to airlines. Since the airport is a network provider, all ports are charged. So, if an airline wants to take a port, they are not allowed to do their own cabling, but can plug into a port for a monthly rental.

For passenger processing, MIAL has a concession agreement with Sita, where Sita maintains operations, invests capital, and offers to tie up with all airlines. Sita then pays a fee to MIAL. "Our target is to make more than Rs 15 crore in 2009-10," says Anantheswaran, "Currently, the airport spends around 1.5 percent of its revenues on IT. By offering new services to external users (airlines and travelers) the airport wants to bring this down to zero, and create a self-sustained IT organization."

If the figures add up, the logic that these services could turn MIAL's IT department into a self-sustaining business enterprise -- putting MIAL on the same platform as a Bharti Airtel -- could work.

But if you want to play Bharti, you have to deal with Bharti's problems, one of which was ensuring uptime with redundancy. MIAL's technology backbone took care of that. "Every fiber backbone has a dual route: from a data center to each hub room there are two fiber routes. This ensures that if one cable is damaged, the second route is taken up automatically within 15 milliseconds, unlike traditional technology, which takes between two and three seconds. If a user is in the middle of a telephone call, he or she will not even realize a fiber has been cut," Anantheswaran says.

Another problem that came with being a service provider was the size of infrastructure. The hub rooms, which distribute cables to every VoIP phone, data port, check-in counter etcetera, were 50 meters in radius -- and MIAL had 16 of them. Sparing huge amounts of space for data center and the hub rooms, was a daunting idea. "Unless we clearly show revenues coming out of the space we were taking up, it is going to be very difficult to justify the move," says Anantheswaran.

And that wasn't where the costs ended.

Business Ticket

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2