Bids to build a wireless platform for the sprawling 27-square-mile North Texas airport are due this week. The airport wants a private network that routes people, bags and vehicles more efficiently than ever before.

Martha DeGrasse, Contributor, Light Reading

November 15, 2022

8 Min Read
DFW Airport ponders a decade-long private wireless contract

Mike Youngs isn't ashamed to say the idea of using a private cellular network at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport was conceived in the restroom. Youngs, the airport's VP for IT, wanted to use wireless technology to reduce crowding in restroom lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. His team installed sensors and lights above stalls and monitors outside restrooms to let people know when doors were locked and stalls were occupied. The sensors, unfortunately, kept losing their connection to the airport's Wi-Fi network, which is concentrated in areas where people wait to board planes.

Adding more Wi-Fi access points was not the answer, Youngs said. "The Wi-Fi is outsourced to a third party, and there is data we cannot collect," he said. In addition to the restrooms, the airport is installing sensors in parking garages, on vehicles, on escalators and in concession areas. Youngs' team wants to monitor traffic and measure the experience of the roughly 100,000 people who pass through Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) daily.

"Anywhere a passenger goes, we want a public and a private network, but the passengers won't really get on the private network," Youngs explained. Instead, the airport will use tools like smart cameras and motion detectors to gauge traffic flow, and Youngs wants to connect those to a private cellular network.

Figure 1: Boarding a flight in Dallas is a bit more complex (and a lot less glamorous) than it used to be. (Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University) Boarding a flight in Dallas is a bit more complex (and a lot less glamorous) than it used to be.
(Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

"If you add all this up, it is over 200 concession locations, 500 vehicles on the airfield, 150 escalators and elevators that we are monitoring, and there is only more coming at us if you think about some of the autonomous things, like the tugs that move baggage to the carousel," said Youngs. "Our current state of connectivity is not meeting our needs, so that is really why we think private network is our future."

The airport ran two private network trials and then issued a formal request for bids to build a comprehensive wireless platform. Submissions are due Friday, November 18, and Youngs expects to take a final proposal to the airport's board by February. He said 12 companies attended DFW's initial information session, including all three major wireless carriers.

Scope of the project

Youngs said that the private cellular network is to be deployed first on the tarmac to support both passenger and cargo planes and then expanded to the rest of the airport. The request for bids did not stipulate that the network must use 5G at the outset.

If the network expands per plan, it will be one of the largest private networks in the country. The airport covers 26.9 miles, making it bigger than the island of Manhattan. It comprises five terminals, seven runways and 168 gates. DFW has its own zip code, data centers, police force, fire department and EMS. More than 30,000 people work there; 2,000 of them are directly employed by the airport and 160 of those work in the IT department.

There are two parts to DFW's comprehensive wireless platform project: Wi-Fi and cellular. Youngs said the contract with the current Wi-Fi provider is ending and the airport needs a new one. He's open to working with one provider for Wi-Fi and cellular or with two or more service providers who work together. "We have left open the possibility of partnerships," Youngs said, adding that he values the economies of scale offered by shared infrastructure.

CBRS trials

Paul Puopolo, EVP of Innovation at DFW, said the airport plans to use the CBRS spectrum under General Authorized Access. "We will be looking at partners who have access to additional spectrum in case the situation presents itself such that we need it," he added.

The airport commissioned two trials last year to establish the technology's viability. One of the trials took place at American Airlines gate A9. The goal was to support the sorting of baggage as it comes off the planes. American Airlines uses an app for this, and employees handling the baggage can connect to the AT&T and T-Mobile networks. Youngs said cellular coverage was poor at the gate and there was no access to Wi-Fi there. Youngs said that the airport worked with Betacom to deploy a CBRS network, which delivered the low latency and high bandwidth American Airlines wanted.

Lisa Garza, VP of Marketing at Betacom, said airlines and airports are emerging as early adopters of private wireless and CBRS. Betacom has deployed a private network near DFW at a 200,000-square-foot warehouse owned and operated by logistics provider Teltech. The companies said the warehouse would become a showcase for warehouse distribution and Industry 4.0 capabilities.

At DFW, Betacom supplied an end-to-end solution, including core, RAN, MEC and security software. Druid Software and Airspan were Betacom's partners in the DFW trial.

DFW's second CBRS trial was a partnership with Samsung and Harman, the connected vehicle and audio specialist that Samsung acquired in 2016. The goal of this trial was to evaluate the efficacy of a private CBRS network for tracking cargo assets. Youngs noted that every commercial airline moves cargo on most flights, and DFW also supports 19 dedicated cargo airlines.

Getting down to business

Youngs sees the private network DFW hopes to construct as a way to cut expenses and potentially grow revenue for the airport. He said the monthly bills DFW pays the wireless carriers are growing, and he would rather make the upfront capital investment to build his own network. "There is obviously a recurring cost to operate it, but not what it would be with carriers," he forecast.

DFW is subject to the deal made between AT&T, Verizon and the Federal Aviation Administration, which forbids C-band transmissions within two miles of certain airports. Separately, the airport has signed tower leases with carriers and plans to try to put its own wireless equipment on new towers built on its property.

In addition, Youngs hopes to monetize the private network by potentially offering it as a service to cargo providers and concessionaires. He thinks this makes sense for the airport from financial and technical perspectives.

"We don't want every airline or concessionaire doing their own thing," he said. "We feel strongly this is a resource the airport should manage and operate; otherwise, it will be sort of a wild, wild west."

So far, the airport has yet to ask any stakeholders to help pay for the private network. "Ultimately, if we make an investment like capital funding, the airlines have to sign off so they would pay for it anyway," he said. "With concessionaires and cargo providers, we see another opportunity. Wireless is not their core business. They would rather we provide it and bake it into their lease."

Looking to the future

Youngs said DFW is North America's first carbon-neutral airport. It has recycled 2,700 tons of material and 231,000 pounds of used cooking oil and has diverted 1.9 million tons of construction waste from landfills.

The private network will play a role in supporting sustainability. He wants to use sensors to monitor energy consumption but said many of the places he wants to install them in could only be reached with a planned network architecture.

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"Another thing we are working on is solar-powered wireless surveillance cameras," Youngs said. He has seen prices for these cameras come down to around $1,000, but said that cost would go up dramatically if he has to connect them using fiber. "You have to get them to remote areas like the perimeter fence on the airfield," he explained. "A $1,000 video camera can cost $20,000 or more if you have to get it to remote areas."

Puopolo added that he would like to connect facial recognition cameras and autonomous vehicles to the network in the future. He said the airport has already piloted autonomous vehicles in a parking garage, and he wants to do more. That will require greater connectivity, he said.

The partners that build DFW's comprehensive wireless platform will sign a 10-year contract, Puopolo said, noting that this is a longer commitment than the airport typically makes. "The way the models worked in the past did not meet the needs of our tenants or our passengers," he said. "We need greater flexibility."

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— Martha DeGrasse, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Martha DeGrasse

Contributor, Light Reading

Martha DeGrasse is a contributor to Light Reading. Follow her on Twitter: @mardegrasse

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