Private networks: transforming airport connectivity 

As the aviation industry recovers from the impact of the pandemic, robust connectivity has become increasingly critical. Martin Green, head of business development at Cellnex UK, explores how the installation of private networks can solve the pain points associated with public cellular and Wi-Fi networks at airports, including slow connection speeds, bandwidth issues, and security.

As pre-Covid-19 levels of service begin to return, the demand for operational effectiveness and a seamless travel experience has become increasingly important.  

Yet with depleted resources, labour shortages, and some Covid-19 restrictions still in place, there have been significant disruptions. Long waiting times and uncertainty over flights have placed many airports and customers under pressure.  

Significantly improving connectivity is one way to ease the strain. Pervasive, reliable, and secure wireless connectivity is proving to be vital in enhancing operational effectiveness and improving customer and passenger experience.  

Airports must look to revolutionise their connectivity to upgrade services, reduce costs, manage security, and increase efficiency.  

Public vs private networks 

Businesses face many challenges when it comes to operating on publicly available networks, including slow connection speeds, dead spots, and bandwidth issues. Security is also a major concern, with open public networks making organisations more susceptible to cyberattacks, hacking, and malware.  

Yet despite all this, most airports continue to rely on these open networks, which creates several restrictions. Wi-Fi and public Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks do not provide a reliable service for critical operations and effective fleet management, and often are not able to cater for future growth – such as an increasing number of connected devices.  

The airport economic model is facing a transformational moment, where success lies in impacting key value drivers to optimise revenue and profitability – and robust and scalable communications infrastructure that integrates data, emerging technologies, and innovation is critical. So, how can airports strengthen network infrastructure?  

Private networks – dedicated 4G/5G mobile communications networks built for and owned by businesses – enable a vast range of experience-enhancing applications that, for transport hubs, are critical in ensuring a unified experience in which workers and operators are continuously connected. 

Smooth operations

Many airports already have the technology, such as internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence, needed to meet service expectations. However, most aren’t aware of the benefits of a secure network in delivering these.  

IoT applications, such as tracking baggage handling, require the support of a wireless network that is available without interruption to ensure a smooth operation. Similarly, further applications, such as data tracking to report the condition of the runway before an aeroplane departs, heavily depend on the availability of reliable connectivity. 

But without the support of 5G provided by private networks, there is a higher risk of service interruptions. A secure network can also support automation and smart utilisation of airport spaces to manage passenger flows with mobile check-in and auto bag drop off. Importantly, it can also provide dedicated coverage and capacity so operational systems can easily communicate with each other, even when public networks are congested.  

What’s more, they can enable real-time monitoring of operations, meaning airport decision makers can effectively mitigate potential issues. For example, live data can be used to help the airport adapt to changing passenger numbers before making operational decisions.  

A secure private network also provides the power to quickly process live geolocation data – including the use of drones to sweep the perimeter and tarmac for safety hazards, which is critical in improving health and safety. Deploying drones can provide data on specific locations for issues, compared to the less-precise manual process, requiring someone to physically log the approximate location of hazards that need to be addressed.  

All these examples work best when high network performance, consistent reliability, and data security are in place, playing a vital role in optimising operations and improving services for customers and vendors. With the deployment of private networks, airports become their own network infrastructure operator, enabling total control over their connectivity.  

This means airports can separate operational usage and traffic among networks, which is essential for security, privacy, and performance reasons. Airport staff and customers can effectively perform logistics and crucial operations on a bandwidth that is not being used by passengers to browse and stream services. 

A cost-effective way to improve vital communications 

Investing in private networks is the ideal way to enable digitalisation and automation in airports, because they are designed to provide the bandwidth to support the innovation of current and emerging technologies.  

It is the most cost-effective way for an airport to improve current communications. The use of private networks minimises infrastructure expenditures by eliminating the need to install wired lines and reduces hardware costs by providing long-range coverage.  

By delivering high bandwidth, strong capacity, and excellent security, built-for-purpose private networks can support complex and demanding environments and are scaled to meet specific needs and locations. By connecting assets, equipment, and people on a single, scalable, and reliable network, private networks overcome the coverage and capacity limitations common to public networks. 

Private networks provide the foundation for future connectivity needs and digitalisation strategy. While airport applications ultimately deliver the business value, it’s the communications infrastructure that underpins success.