How the Orlando airport went fully wireless

Deploying a wireless network to meet the demand of airport passengers is extremely challenging. Here is how the Orlando airport accomplished it.

Takeoff plane in airport    166183750

If you're reading this post, you're most likely involved in the technology industry in some way. As such, you probably attend at least one, if not multiple, events in Orlando every year. It's only May and I think I've been there four times already this year.

In addition to being one of THE places to go for technology conferences, it happens to be one of the country's top vacation spots for families. This makes the Orlando airport unique in that it's a high-volume origin and destination airports. Most of the country's busy airports, like Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Atlanta, are airline hub locations, so a high percentage of the passengers are connecting from one flight to another. However, with Orlando, almost all of the passengers are either coming to or departing from the local area.

I recently had a chance to interview John Newsome, Director of Information Technology for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA), about the mobile experience the GOAA has created for the passengers coming through the airport. Despite being a non-hub airport, Orlando airport is now the 12th busiest in the U.S. It is also home to more than 40 airlines and has over 37 million people pass through it every year. This makes building any kind of wireless application or network extremely challenging.

Because the airport is part of the fabric of the community and the first or last step in a person's trip, the GOAA's primary objective is to ensure that the customers have an airport experience consistent with the other venues in the airport. Newsome told me that the Authority is laser-focused on ensuring the customers have a pleasant experience that reduces anxiety and stress. Anyone who has been through it recently should have noticed a much better physical experience, with more foliage, water, and glass in the airport, and classical music playing throughout all the concourses. Newsome described this to me as providing the "Orlando experience."

One of the big improvements that Disney has made over the past few years is providing customers with an outstanding mobile experience. The mobile application allows patrons to find places to eat, look up attractions, and get turn-by-turn directions to any location in the park. This is the type of experience the GOAA had in mind for the airport.

The airport's wireless network is, of course, the foundation for any kind of mobile engagement with passengers. The network is currently comprised of over 1,200 Aruba access points, Aruba Mobility Controllers, and AirWave management tools, and it has recently added more than 1,000 Aruba Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) beacons. The beacons provide indoor location information to within a few feet. Also, the GOAA recently built a mobile application to enhance the in-airport experience.

The primary purpose of the mobile application is indoor navigation. While the number of APs and beacons may seem like a lot, the public spaces in the airport covers over 3 million square feet over the five terminals. The mobile application allows travelers to quickly find their ticket counter, terminal, gate, a restaurant, baggage claim area, and look up flight information. The application is also the first airport mobile application to feature a "blue dot" experience, similar to what Disney offers, that indicates where a traveler is and provides a turn-by-turn path to the selected destination.

In addition to indoor navigation services, the application now allows customers to select other services and find information about them. For example, the application links to the food services and provides food and beverage information, or it can direct passengers to their airline's website. In the future, Newsome is hoping to add the ability to order food from the restaurants directly from the application and provide information on other airport services like the wait times at TSA check points.

The first release of the application is available on Android and Apple platforms and it has been incredibly popular. To date, there have been over 9,000 downloads of the application and it currently has a rating of 4.4 on the Android play store.

In addition to powering the application, the network provides free, airport-wide Wi-Fi. Orlando and McCarran airport in Las Vegas were the first to offer free Wi-Fi in all areas of the airport. Supporting wireless in an airport can be very challenging. Passengers tend to rush through the checkpoints and rush to the gate area. Then when they get to the gate, they connect any combination of a tablet, smartphone, and laptop. More and more passengers will stream videos or download content right up until boarding time, bringing bandwidth utilization to a peak. The challenge is keeping customers satisfied during these peak times.   

I think anyone reading this has probably experienced how frustrating poor Wi-Fi can be. When it's too frustrating, many users either tether off their smartphone or use portable hotspots. Personally, I carry a personal hotspot because public Wi-Fi is so unreliable. The portable hotspots interfere with the airport Wi-Fi and can degrade the passenger experience. Aruba has a feature called Adaptive Radio management that helps automatically tune the network to minimize the impact of the mobile hotspots.      

To keep the experience high, Newsome informed me that the airport is starting roll out 802.11AC and will be adding an additional 150 APs to support the growing bandwidth requirements. The APs are currently on a three-year cycle, so by the end of 2017, the airport will be 100% AC. 

So the next time you're going to Orlando for any number of tradeshows, remember to download the mobile application, get turn-by-turn direction to your gate, and enjoy the free Wi-Fi. The GOAA has put a tremendous amount of work into building the application and network, so enjoy it!


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022