GRAND RAPIDS — A public Wi-Fi network could take off at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport as early as fall under a proposal that will go before the Kent County Aeronautics Board later this month.
Airport staff has been researching the possibility of providing wireless Internet access to the traveling public since last year and has put together a proposal for installation of a Wi-Fi system throughout the airport’s passenger terminal building, said Bruce Schedlbauer, Ford International’s manager of marketing and communications. That means wireless access would be available in the concourses, main hall, baggage claim area and any other public spaces in the terminal, he said.
According to a recent USA Today survey, 30 of the nation’s busiest airports offer free Wi-Fi, but typically only in member-only airline clubs.
“We’re looking for the board’s approval to move ahead and their direction on a couple of different items,” Schedlbauer said.
One of the issues is whether to outsource the installation, operation and maintenance of the system or do it in-house. He said staff recommendation is to outsource the project. The other issue is whether to charge the public a daily fee for access or simply offer it free of charge.
“We’ll be presenting information as to the benefits of both, and it will be the board’s decision whether we will charge for the system or not. Assuming the board gives approval to move ahead, we anticipate that by the time we go through the whole request for proposals process and get someone on board, we would have a system installed and available for use by this fall.”
Many airports that have installed wireless Internet access are charging the public a daily fee for usage, said Robert A. Buchanan, Ford International’s legal counsel and director of Grand Rapids-based Law Weathers & Richardson PC.
Under the daily-fee model, the airport contracts with an Internet service provider on a concession basis, he explained. The provider typically charges users a daily fee and handles network deployment, management and customer service. The service is generally for public access only, not for airport tenants and the airlines. Airport tenants that wanted to have wireless Internet would be left to implement their own systems, Buchanan said.
Under a free public access model, he said, the airport pays for installation of the network and provides free public access simply as a customer service. The airport can manage the system or pay the provider to manage it. Airport tenants don’t have access in this model, either.
Installing a Wi-Fi network at an airport can be more complicated than creating a Wi-Fi “hot spot” at a local café because an airport is a multi-user, multi-purpose facility overseen by a government body, Buchanan said.
“Cost is the issue, and that’s what drives how the system is implemented,” Buchanan said. “Someone is going to have to front several thousands of dollars to put in all the routers and hubs and install the antenna in the areas that we’re going to include.”
The advantage of seeking out a concession with an existing provider is that the provider fronts that cost. Who is going to front the cost will determine which direction the board takes, he said.
In exchange for making the capital investment, the high-speed wireless Internet provider would be granted the right to concession for a period of time and would be able to sell access, generally in the range of $6.95 to $9.95 for daily use connection, Buchanan said.
At the end of the concession agreement the airport could decide to take over the system, but typically an airport contracts with a provider and the provider continues to provide the service.
“There would be some potential for revenue sharing with the airport, so it doesn’t all go to the provider,” he added.
Schedlbauer said the push to install a Wi-Fi system stemmed from both public demand as well as the desire to keep up with other airports in terms of technological amenities and services offered customers.
“We had been hearing from the traveling public about their desire to have Wi-Fi offered in the building.”
Schedlbauer acknowledged that if the Wi-Fi system is offered free of charge, there’s really no control over use of the system by anyone, whether a tenant or someone who simply walks into the building. But he said there are a couple ways the airport can try to maintain some control. One would be a time-out feature that logs a user off after a certain amount of time.
“We will be getting reports and if we happen to see a particular tenant, let’s say, that’s habitually utilizing the system, then we can approach them and tell them they’re not the audience the system was intended for.”
The courts have indicated that the party responsible for putting in the wireless network can be interpreted as an “Internet service provider,” Buchanan pointed out. With that designation comes some responsibility for monitoring the network to minimize criminal use and the display of inappropriate material.
“That sort of militates in favor of having a professional provider that knows what they’re doing and how to meet those security requirements,” he said.
Airport officials are not considering an alternative Wi-Fi model known as an “integrated system,” which serves both public users and airport tenants throughout the building.
Buchanan said an integrated system raises a lot of additional complications, and that Ford International probably isn’t a big enough environment to need that type of system anyway.