Airports: The roles of 5G & private networks

Growing Enterprise Revenues, Network Futures

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Airports are complex, multi-sector, multi-application, multi-stakeholder sites. They hold opportunities for both public & private 5G networks, although telcos need to choose their roles carefully.

A deep dive into private networks for the aviation vertical

This report is intended to be both a specific examination of an important sector of opportunity for Private 5G (P5G) and an example of the complexity of major industrial sectors and campus-based environments. It also covers opportunities for MNOs.

Airports have been among the earliest sites for private cellular and remain a major focus for vendors and service providers, as solutions mature and spectrum options proliferate. They already generate huge investments into public cellular (indoor and outdoor) as well as being headline sites for Wi-Fi deployment and use. They also employ dozens of other wireless technologies, from radar to critical voice communications.

In the case of airports, the largest are so large and diverse that they actually resemble cities, with “private” networks serving an environment actually quite similar to a small national operator or regional MNO. For example, Dallas Fort-Worth airport spans 27 square miles – larger than the island of Manhattan or the principality of San Marino. They may have 100s of companies as tenants, and 10000s of employees – as well as passengers, vehicles and IoT devices. This may mean that they end up with multiple private wireless networks in different parts of the airfield – from the passenger terminal to maintenance hangars to hotels, to the car-rental facility.

They are also intensive Coordination Age ecosystems. Their effective operation involves the safe and secure management of millions of physical and digital assets across multiple parties, billions of dollars, and many lives.

Often technology product and marketing executives think of industry sectors as monolithic (“finance”, “retail”, “oil and gas” etc), typically aligning with familiar industry classification codes. The truth is that each industry has multiple sub-sectors and varied site types, numerous applications, several user-groups, arrays of legacy systems and technology vendors, and differing attitudes and affordability of wireless solutions.

STL Partners hopes that this exercise examining airports will prompt suppliers and operators to drill into other vertical sectors in similar depth. Depending on the response to this type of document, we may well write up other areas in similar fashion in future. (We are also available for private analysis projects).

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Sector trends and drivers affecting private 5G networks

This report is not the appropriate venue for a full analysis of the aviation and airport industry. However, a number of top-level trends are important to understand, as there is a fairly direct link to the deployment of cellular technologies and private 4G/5G.

Trends for airlines

Before the pandemic, there was a sustained growth in worldwide air-passenger traffic, fuelled by the growth of Chinese and Indian middle-classes, as well as inter-regional and long-haul flights in and between Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. Forecasts were continued for growth, with air-freight also increasing alongside passenger numbers.

This growth resulted in numerous impacts on aviation more broadly:

  • Construction of many entirely new airports, along with extra terminals and refurbishments at established sites. Examples have included immense new airports at Beijing, Doha and Istanbul. These developments typically include huge focus on efficiency, IoT and safety – all heavily reliant on connectivity.
  • Low-cost and “basic” airlines such as Southwest, EasyJet, AirAsia and others have grown rapidly (at least pre-pandemic). Some have built dedicated terminals. Many have a huge focus on fast “turns” of aircraft between arrival and departure. This needs enhanced coordination and communications between multiple ground-service providers to manage 50+ tasks, from baggage unloading to cleaning and refuelling.
  • Established airlines focusing on greater efficiency, novel route choices, new hub airports, better customer satisfaction via information and interactivity throughout their journeys, as well as pushing ancillary services such as contract maintenance. Again, connectivity plays a variety of roles, from hangars to in-flight wireless.
  • Major warehousing and logistics centres built at airports for companies such as Fedex and UPS, as well as eCommerce players such as Amazon starting to build fleets of planes and on- or near-airport facilities. These typically feature high levels of automation and wide use of robotics.
Long-term air passenger growth (pre-pandemic)

Long-term air passenger growth (pre-pandemic)

Airports as “hubs” for multiple businesses

Many airports now operate on-site business centres, hotels, large retail facilities – as well as growing sophistication of air-freight, contract maintenance services and aircraft refits. Each is often a business in its own right, with separate buildings – but must also coordinate with the central airport authority in terms of security, traffic, signage and vehicle movements.

As well as their own internal connectivity requirements for employees and a growing range of IoT systems, the site-owners are also responsible for wired and wireless links for stakeholders such as:

  • Transportation companies
    • Airlines, both within the terminals and at hangars / warehouses and nearby offices.
    • Shipping agents and freight forwarders
    • Logistics and package-delivery firms
  • Services providers
    • National mobile network operators
    • Retailers and other concessions
    • Vehicle rental agencies
    • Bus, rail, taxi & tour companies
    • Caterers
    • Fuel companies
    • Security firms
    • On-site hotels, warehouses and business parks
    • Insurance and finance organisations
  • Operations and public safety
    • Police and firefighters
    • Medical services
    • Air / port traffic control
    • Power and lighting providers
    • Construction contractors

Many of these groups could potentially justify their own investments in private cellular networks (as well as indoor coverage and Wi-Fi if they have dedicated buildings). An open question is whether airport authorities will try to deploy fully campus-wide networks, or whether a diverse array of separate infrastructures will emerge organically.

Industry transformation, automation and IoT-led innovation

As well as the airlines, the airport authorities have become ever-more focused on technology of the site overall. They are aware of operational efficiency, security and safety – and increasing the potential to earn extra revenues from passengers. A very broad array of existing and new use-cases are leaning on improved connectivity, such as:

  • In-building coverage (and huge capacity) for passengers and workers, all of whom expect both multi-network cellular and ubiquitous Wi-Fi availability
  • Prolific use of digital sign-boards for passengers, staff, plane/ship crews etc
  • Freight-tracking, including details about pallets and containers
  • Security cameras and sensors
  • Smart lighting for runways, loading areas and local roadways
  • Support of complex and mission-critical baggage-handling systems
  • Border and customs functions, including automated passport scanners with video analytics
  • “Smart building” technology ensuring optimal use of ventilation, heating, lighting and safety sensors
  • Robotic and remote-controlled vehicles, such as tugs or drones
  • Voice communications systems, now evolving from 2-way radios to cellular-based systems
  • Maintenance systems for aircraft in hangars – increasingly with high-definition video inspections, augmented reality for engineers, and strict requirements on documentation and record-keeping.

Security and safety concerns

Airports have always had to contend with security issues, from immigration to fire-safety, anti-terrorism, theft and smuggling operations. This has required continued evolution of screening systems, cameras, staff access control and multiple layers of analytics software.

This translates to private cellular in a number of ways:

  • Desire to update legacy critical communications systems (e.g. TETRA radios) to more-capable LTE or 5G equivalents, to enable data, video and other applications.
  • Requirement for networks with a bias towards data uplink rather than downlink, especially for HD video and other security  This may mean a preference for separate frequencies to the public networks, in order to accommodate a different mix of up/down traffic.
  • Involvement of a wide range of systems integrators and critical communications specialists with a long history of deploying reliable wireless  Many are adopting 4G and 5G skill-sets internally.
  • Requirement for 100% coverage of the airport environment, both indoors and outdoors as far as the perimeter fence. This may be outside the coverage of many public networks, especially for higher-frequency 5G

Complex wireless environment

It is important to recognise that airfields have a huge array of different technology systems, many of which depend on radio communications or other electromagnetic use-cases. Some of these – such as radars – can occupy frequency bands quite close to those used for 4G or 5G mobile. There are also assorted niche applications, for air traffic control, critical communications among ground workers and emergency services, satellite connectivity for aircraft, scientific instruments for weather forecasting and many others. Wi-Fi is used intensively, both inside the terminal and across some outdoor areas. Some airports have sections used by the military as well as civil aviation, with yet another group of radio types and frequencies employed.

This has several implications:

  • Unlike many other sites, cellular communications is not the most important use of spectrum  Mobile networks – whether public or private – need to fit alongside a huge variety of other services and functions.
  • Some frequency bands that are offered by regulators on a local basis for private 4G/5G may not be available for licensing at airports, as there may be important incumbent users.
  • Airports take increasing interest in overall spectrum management tools, as well as site surveys and the ability to intervene rapidly in case of problems.
  • The aviation industry has a large number of wireless and RF specialists, some of whom are likely to be cross-trained in cellular  This makes it more capable than many sectors to adopt private networks rather than always relying on public MNO service.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Since early 2020, the aviation and airline sector has been decimated by travel restrictions imposed because of the pandemic. Traffic and passenger levels at many airports fell to 20% of pre-pandemic levels or lower. However, as vaccination programs enable the re-opening of travel, growth is starting to occur again.

Various after-effects of the pandemic will increase the need for automation, connectivity and communications. There are new security-checks on vaccination and testing status, more cameras for fever-detection and mask-compliance, automated sanitising of surfaces and much more. Many airports have needed to reconfigure the layouts of their terminals to accommodate testing centres, facilitate social distancing, or sometimes close areas in order to reduce costs. This puts a premium on wireless connectivity that can be adapt to new circumstances rapidly.

Another impact of the last 2 years has been growth in the importance of cargo shipments, from both dedicated freight terminals and in commercial airliners. This has led to new warehouse facilities being constructed, as well as different types of asset tracking and loading vehicles being employed. Again, this has driven the need for better connectivity.

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
    • Overview
    • Recommendations for Airport Operators & Airlines
    • Recommendations for Mobile Operators
    • Recommendations for Regulators & Policymakers
    • Recommendations for Vendors
  • Introduction
    • Sector trends and drivers affecting private networks
  • Evolving airport use-cases for 4G/5G
    • Understanding airports’ layout
    • Background: Public cellular at airports
    • From public to private connectivity: growth in B2B wireless
    • Specific use-cases for private 4G / 5G at airports
  • Airports – a subset of “campus” networks
    • Characteristics of campus networks
    • Adjacent trends
    • Campus networks: who is responsible?
  • Building & operating airport private networks
    • Supply-side evolution for airport networks
    • Airport stakeholders
    • Monetisation opportunities
    • Airport private network case studies
    • Can public 5G network slicing work instead of private 5G?
    • Where does Wi-Fi & other wireless technology fit?

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