Free Wireless Internet Lands at the Edmonton International Airport

Since 2004, the Edmonton International Airport has offered wireless Internet access, for a fee. As at many other airports, it was operated by Boingo. Unless you were already a Boingo subscriber, it just wasn’t worth it to get connected for an hour or two, and many people griped (myself included) about the lack of free wi-fi at the airport, especially as other airports increasingly offered it. Starting today, passengers have one less thing to complain about: EIA now offers free wi-fi access throughout the entire airport!

I wanted to learn more about the service and how it came to be, so I sat down with Reagan Winchester, EIA’s Director of IT, to find out. He was quite excited about the free wi-fi, even though it was a challenging project to implement. We started with some background.

It turns out that there wasn’t any broadband Internet access at EIA until Reagan’s team brought in two very large connections from Shaw and Telus. Once those were in place, EIA built a mini DSL network, and started selling access to its tenants in order to recoup the costs (one of its customers was, of course, Boingo). That worked, but everyone still managed their own hardware and services. Over time, it became clear that the many separate networks that existed at EIA (security, flight information, etc) would be better served if they were integrated, running off the same infrastructure, without each tenant having to worry about hardware and maintenance. So EIA started building out a Campus Area Network. Importantly, wi-fi was a key component of the network. With that infrastructure in place, the primary technical hurdle to offering free Internet access went away.

Another hurdle was convincing management that EIA should be offering something for free that previously they had been charging for. Under the deal with Boingo (which expired in June 2009), EIA made only a little bit of money. Boingo installed the access points and managed everything, so they kept most of the revenue. Now with its own wireless access in place, EIA had a few options: offer its own paid wireless, offer ad supported wireless, or offer completely free wireless. One of the tools they used to make that decision was the Airport Service Quality survey results. If you look at ASQ scores, Canadian airports with free wi-fi (like Vancouver) are in the top ten in North America with an average score of 3.61/4, whereas airports with paid wi-fi are in the 20-30 range with an average score of 3.06/4. Of all the different categories that airports are scored on, EIA performed worst compared to others in wi-fi category. So that made it clear that by offering free wi-fi, EIA could improve its ASQ score quite a bit. Further investigation revealed that airports with ad supported wi-fi scored 3.59/4, so the ability to have a little bit of cost recovery and still improve ASQ scores meant that in the end, EIA decided to go with ad supported wi-fi.

The new wireless network itself is managed by EIA, with the gateway and public facing stuff being provided by Boldstreet (the same company that Starbucks and Second Cup use at their locations). Boingo has at least 36 Cisco Aironet access points at EIA, but they’re old and only support 802.11b, so they’re pretty slow (they’ll remain accessible until August 31, 2010). EIA is using Meru access points (with Foundry hardware on the wired side), which support 802.11 a/b/g/n, and there are 31 deployed throughout the airport currently. That’s just a fraction of the more than 300 that they plan to install! The idea is to have VOIP-level wireless, which means three overlapping access points, with five bars everywhere. I tried connecting in the tower (which doesn’t have any access points currently) and I got four bars, so I was quite impressed!

To connect to the free wi-fi, look for the EIA_FREE_WIFI network. On devices like laptops, you’ll get presented with a splash screen that you need to login to. You can either choose anonymous access for 15 minutes (after which you go back to the splash screen and can choose it again), login with Facebook, login with your carrier account (Bell, Telus, Rogers, etc), or you can get a password sent to you via SMS. The authentication helps ensure that the network is not abused. On devices like cell phones that support voice over wi-fi, the authentication step can be skipped. There is no content or port filtering once you’re connected.

I’m really happy that EIA now offers free wireless Internet access. It’s such a positive thing for Edmontonians who are waiting to fly out, and for visitors to our city whose first impression is the airport. To celebrate, EIA is encouraging people to become fans on Facebook. If you do it before August 13, you’ll be entered to win a $1000 travel voucher, a 32 GB iPod, or free parking.

Congrats to EIA on making free wi-fi a reality!

  • Thank goodness! Until now, this was always an advantage that Calgary International Airport had over the Edmonton International Airport. It’s great to see that EIA is now onboard with free wireless!

  • Great article, Mack!

  • Ian

    Now it just needs transit service and it can be an airport people will actually like using.

  • So glad. It’s about time.

  • Good coverage, Mack. I am however, disappointed that they felt the need to spend upwards of $400k on a wireless network. Good technology doesn’t cost that much!

  • What good news! In this day and age this is so helpful to business men and the everyday traveler alike.

  • Ivar

    Great to hear WI FI is finally available at the Airport as a passenger I haven’t used the Wi Fi when required to pay of it. I am now looking forward to using it while waiting for my flight on Tuesday Aug 3

    Ivar Rand

  • EdmTrekker

    Ad hosted wifi requiring returning every 15 min to log on is an insult. ONCE I see the ad that is enough. They need min of 30 min to ensure this is not intrusive.

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  • @EdmTrekker,
    I agree! It sure is insulting to have to see an advertisement in exchange for free access. Why oh why can’t they just make everyone pay!?

  • Bill Wanagus

    Got a chance to try it out this weekend! Not intrusive at all (I used the SMS login method – enter your cell phone # and receive a password on your phone that you use to log in – only need to do it once – provides 2 hours worth of free access, when your time is up, just re-enter the same password.)
    I was getting 4Mbps down and 10Mbps up (way better than Calgary Airport where I only got 0.65Mbps down and 0.17Mbps up).

  • As a relatively inexpensive way to showcase the city as business/traveler friendly, I think it’s a great idea. Now I’ll be able to squeeze in a few emails while I wait for my flight.

  • Thanks a
    lot for the time and energy that you’ve been putting into writing your
    article. I leave comments not too often, but sometimes it just needs to be
    said. Cheers!
    Alberta Business Internet