Boingo Wireless, well known for its distributed antenna system (DAS) and Wi-Fi expertise, is bringing millimeter wave 5G connectivity from AT&T to 12 airports across the U.S.
Boingo CEO Mike Finley anticipates other carriers to follow in bringing 5G to airports.
FierceWireless spoke to Finley during an AT&T 5G media event this week, where he also joined a panel session discussing current and future applicability of 5G.
Boingo already serves major airports and large venues across the country, operating as a neutral host to provide connectivity through a variety of technologies with both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. It’s also working with the DoD for 5G on military bases.
The deal with AT&T includes busy hubs such as JFK International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, Chicago O-Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport.
AT&T plans to bring its mmWave “5G+” service to seven major airports this year and expand to 25 by the end of 2022. Most of AT&T’s millimeter wave holdings are in the 24 GHz and 39 GHz bands.
As for adding 5G, Finley said it’s very complex – from both the spectrum side, as carriers’ respective bands can range from low 600 MHz to upper mmWave bands (and will be combined with unlicensed technology like Wi-Fi 6) – as well as new and more radios and antennas to set up. But Boingo doesn’t shy away.
“For us, the more complicated the better because not many people can do it,” he said. “It just takes a little time, a little more engineering to set up, but the end results are just phenomenal.”
Network capabilities ready as travel bounces back
The travel industry was hit especially hard amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with people staying home and restrictions on travel but people are starting to get on the move again.
Passengers going through TSA dropped dramatically from the roughly 2 million travelers per day pre-pandemic, Finley said during a panel session. However, the industry is bouncing back, he noted, particularly in the past six weeks. At Wednesday’s event AT&T Chief Marketing and Growth Officer for Consumer Kellyn Smith Kenny cited data from TSA, which reported 24 million unique travelers in May 2021 compared to 3 million in all of May in 2020.
It’s high-density and high-trafficked areas that major operators are initially targeting for deployments of mmWave spectrum, which provides a ton of capacity for use also in spaces like sporting arenas and entertainment venues.
Although transportation and travel were down amid the pandemic, Finley said the lack of passengers and visitors did mean work both for airport upgrades and on other Boingo projects, like the Long Island Railroad, was able to happen faster (of course emphasizing nothing good about Covid-19). Boingo also won a contract for the new East Side Access (ESA) tunnel in New York, which doesn’t have any active lines running yet.
“One of the things the pandemic has changed is I think a lot of this capability is now going to get utilized,” Finley said, referring to bandwidth, high-speed and low latency at airports, arenas and stadiums.
Initially 5G service is focused on end-users coming through the locations. These capabilities will enable not only ticketless entry, but also measures that help visitors feel safe and secure, according to Finley.
Things like cameras to highlight spacing for social distance in lines and queues, temperature checks, contact-less entry and mobile concessions. At airports he cited 5G bandwidth for video calls, which have become a mainstay during Covid, and the ability to download full seasons or movies seamlessly and instantaneously before boarding a plane.
Large venues are also looking to enhance their own operations, such as back offices or robotic cleaning enabled by reliable and secure connectivity.
Private network opportunity
Secure communications are key for large venues, Finley noted and Boingo recently introduced its own private networking-as-a-service offering.
It leverages technologies including its own multi-access edge compute (MEC) to design, build and manage a private network. Boingo is expanding availability to tap other industries like manufacturing, healthcare, logistics and commercial real-estate.
Private networks are also a big focus for carriers as they look to monetize both 4G and 5G investments.
“There will be a little bit of competition,” Finley acknowledged, noting that the three major carriers are very large and have big customer bases. “But there’s a really big opportunity in the private networking space and in some cases we’ll partner with them, as we do already, in some cases I’m sure we’ll compete and in other cases we’ll do things directly” on our own.