Smarter networks make smarter airports

By Richard van Wijk

Like cities, airports face many challenges as they seek to provide for the needs of their “population” – whether it’s enhanced safety, increased revenue or ways to make their operations and offered services smarter.

U.S. airports are moving quickly to modernize their facilities and infrastructure, and a key element of this is the communications network. Why? Because these networks carry the data that is the lifeblood of the airport, and support a wide range of services such as mission-critical, business critical and best effort passenger services. 

Historically, airport operators have deployed and managed separate networks to support multiple use cases at the airport – including multiple operational wireless and wireline solutions as well as networks to support passenger services. These networks have typically been deployed at different times, built with different technologies and managed by different departments. Is it any surprise that the network infrastructure has become unwieldy to manage and costly to operate?

In light of this reality, airports are increasingly looking to move to a single, converged network to support all of their communication needs with strict data traffic segregation capabilities, service prioritization and predictable performance independent of scale. 

One strategy for airport campus networks that has been gaining favor is the deployment of a single, service-aware, converged network based on Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) technology. IP/MPLS can address future growth, while also offering the flexibility, security, reliability and resilience needed to support services on which – in some cases – lives depend. 

Not all connections are the same

Equally important is the need to provide a mobile broadband complement to existing LMR systems (which only support two-way voice communication). 

While several different mobile broadband technologies have been explored for this purpose in recent years, 4G LTE technology has emerged as a de-facto standard for mobile broadband and voice communications due to its ubiquity and scale (i.e. virtually every mobile operator in the world has deployed, or plans to deploy, LTE). It has also become the technology of choice for mobile broadband data service for public safety and other mission-critical applications. As importantly, as the Internet of Things (IoT) grows and plays an increasingly important role in airport management, LTE also provides much needed connectivity for the wide array of sensors and other connected devices involved. 

The network also needs to be rock solid, because any airport network outage entails operations disruption and economic loss, impacting airport and flight safety. As a result, the network must be multi-fault tolerant as long as connectivity is maintained so that the airport can continue to operate; a level of support that IP/MPLS is better designed for than other types of packet transport technology, such as Carrier Ethernet. Similarly, an airport LTE network design involves overlapping cells, hardware redundancy and features that cope with interference mitigation in order to ensure service availability. 

Of course, most airports will be taking a step-wise approach to modernizing their systems, so the communications networks must be able to support legacy technologies for many years to come. To remain competitive and meet the challenges of rapid air traffic growth, airport operators are expanding and transforming airport infrastructure – so their communication networks needs to expand and evolve right along with it. 

More than ever, airports are relying on mission-critical and IT applications that require a flexible, agile and dynamic communications network. They are also looking to these networks as an important source of additional revenue, through the lease of network capacity to businesses and other airport ‘tenants.’

As the network becomes an integral part of airport infrastructure – connecting all facilities from the air traffic control tower to airline check-in kiosks to passenger amenities and Wi-Fi hotspots – modern airports deserve the most modern communication networks available, and this modernization needs to start today.

Richard van Wijk is the practice lead of the Aviation program inside Nokia. Richard has over 25 years of experience in telecommunications business development & consultancy. 


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