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!