McCarran Extends Wi-Fi Access to Ramp & Beyond

Author: 
Mike Schwanz
Published in: 
March-April
2015

Ten years ago, McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas became one of the first U.S. airports to offer passengers free Wi-Fi inside its terminal. Now, the airport is beaming Wi-Fi outside, to passengers sitting on its ramps in arriving and departing aircraft. 

factsfigures
Project: Expanding Wi-Fi Access
Location: McCarran Int'l Airport, Las Vegas
New Areas Served: Airside ramps; rental car facilities; taxi queues; passenger pick-up/drop-off zones
Initial Development/Installation: About 5 years
Cost: Included in budgets of other construction projects
Key Benefits: Increasing customer service via free Wi-Fi access outside the terminal; boosting the efficiency of airport, airline & other employees working on the airfield & elsewhere outside the terminal

Better yet, the Wi-Fi service is free and fast, reports Samuel G. Ingalls, assistant director of aviation, information systems at LAS.  

"When we first installed the free Wi-Fi inside the terminal in 2005, it got glowing reviews," Ingalls recalls. "But ever since then, we have worked hard to continually keep pace with new technology, to offer more connections at higher speeds."

Specifically hoping to expand its envelope of coverage, LAS looked outside the terminal building, to areas used by taxis, rental cars and private vehicles picking up passengers. "We also got feedback that complimentary Wi-Fi outside the main terminals would be important for many of the airlines and their staff, such as baggage handlers, wheelchair assistants, maintenance staff and flight crews," Ingalls explains. "More and more, airline and airport operations are being pushed to tablets and smartphones, so carriers need Wi-Fi throughout the airport - both inside and outside."

It subsequently took the airport five years to fine-tune its system and install Wi-Fi access points in a manner that provides good signals for all of its target user groups, he adds. 

Getting it Right

One challenge facing Ingalls' Information Technology Department was ensuring reliable connections. At some locations, the Wi-Fi signal would work fine with an aircraft at the gate, but the signal would weaken when fuel trucks, catering vans, lavatory cleanup vehicles and baggage carts surrounded the aircraft.

It took a lot of trial-and-error to figure out where to place the antennas, and to determine what signal strength and antenna types were needed, recalls Ingalls. "Our staff spent a lot of time around the ramp areas, and even boarded aircraft to test signals. We also solicited feedback from air carriers," he relates. "By the time we started construction on our new Terminal 3, which opened in June 2012, we had a pretty good idea about where to place the Wi-Fi antennas for maximum effectiveness." 

Today, LAS has several Wi-Fi access points at each gate. Some antennas are elevated on high-mast lighting poles; others are set below jet bridges. Sometimes, the strongest signal for an aircraft parked on the ramp may come from an adjoining gate, Ingalls notes. "Today, for the vast majority of passengers, the signal is strong - even in the back of the plane," he reports.

As part of the airport's plan to continually upgrade its system, LAS is preparing to install additional high-mast Wi-Fi antennas during an upcoming LED ramp lighting project. 

Unlike some airports, LAS doesn't limit how long customers can use its Wi-Fi connection or restrict the bandwidth needed to stream videos, notes Ingalls. If a passenger is stuck on an airplane waiting to arrive at a gate, no password is needed to access the Internet or check emails; the signal is automatically available, he adds. 

"Customer service is part of our DNA," Ingalls stresses. "If a passenger has his Wi-Fi cut off after 15 minutes, it leaves a negative impression that is not worth the cost. In addition, if an aircraft is holding at the gate due to a weather delay, passengers need good Wi-Fi service to make other arrangements." 

Power Users

LAS' newly expanded Wi-Fi system passed a tough test in January, when the giant International Consumer Electronics Show attracted approximately 170,000 tech-oriented attendees to Las Vegas. "I saw many people around the airport with at least three devices. And we didn't get any negative feedback from these attendees, who used the Wi-Fi system both inside and outside the terminal," reports Ingalls. "I considered that a very positive sign."  

Subcategory: 
IT/Communications

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