Carrier WiFi

Manchester's Wireless Glide

Looking for a textbook example of how a large-scale wireless LAN might evolve? Take a look at Manchester Airport, where IT staff started WiFi planning back in 2003, and have steadily expanded the network ever since.

The airport is the the U.K.'s third largest, handling more than 20 million passengers a year. Its three terminals cover almost four miles, with 100 airlines flying out of this Northern English transport hub.

Aaron Bazler, network and infrastructure manager at the airport, says that he had several major objectives when planning the deployment. The first was to deliver a public access WiFi infrastructure, managed in conjunction with T-Mobile (UK) , that would cover major areas in the airport. Manchester also wanted to offer its own staff wireless access to enterprise applications and give airlines the opportunity to use the network for their business purposes as well -- for a fee, of course.

Bazler says that the need to support multiple user types over the same wireless connections helped his team chose Trapeze Networks Inc. back when the network was being planned. The startup supported the broadcasting of multiple Service Set Identifiers (SSIDs) -- the means by which WiFi networks identify themselves to 802.11 devices -- over its centralized managed switch-based architecture.

"Having this capability has allowed the airport to set up public and private WiFi channels for the different users in the terminals," explains Balzer.

These days, broadcasting multiple SSIDs is a standard feature on enterprise access points and some consumer APs. Balzer says that what he likes about the Trapeze setup is that it is easy to update the system simply by replacing the "dumb" APs that link back to the Trapeze controller.

For instance, the network administrator says that he isn't too concerned about the upcoming high-speed WiFi standard 802.11, but he will be able to test it out when it arrives. "They [Trapeze] can just send me a new radio or two."

Manchester now has more than 100 Trapeze access points in place, and Balzer estimates that 50 to 100 people a day log onto the public side of the network. The airport has over 100 workers using the system. They tunnel back to the corporate network using PDAs and laptops via Microsoft Active Directory 2003.

Balzer says that it has taken a while to start to ramp up third-party business use of the network: "These things take time."

Nonetheless, two major airlines and one rail company are now piggybacking on the network. Balzer won't name any of them.

"The next major phase is to spread coverage to outdoor areas," he says. This is so that ground crews and baggage handlers can use the system outdoors.

Each of these major phases can take six months or more, according to Balzer. Sometimes this is because the airport has to ensure that the wired infrastructure is adequate enough for the access points to connect to. Balzer estimates that the airport has around 12,000 miles of fiber optic links in place and more than 20,000 miles of copper.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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