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Richard van Wijk, global aviation practice lead at Nokia, tells Chloe Greenbank why the Finnish company’s wireless private LTE network is changing the way airports keep passengers and crew connected.

What is Nokia’s offering within the airport sector?

We work extensively in the field of aviation, but as the industry embraces the digital era we have specifically developed a string of solutions that have been designed to deliver more reliable airport operational communications and a better passenger experience with private wireless connectivity.

Can you tell us more about your Long-term Evolution (LTE) solution?

Nokia has a lot of traction when it comes to wireless technologies. Airport’s currently face a huge challenge when it comes to wireless connectivity – not so much on the passenger side because that’s covered, but on the operational side. With the staggering growth that’s forecast for passenger traffic, airports need to plan and respond to this passenger growth, and not just in terms of infrastructure, runway and terminal capacity but also from an IT/ OT (operational technology) perspective. Most airports today have implemented a shared wireless network to support both passengers and operations, using a combination of Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity. But airport operators are increasingly dealing with more processes that require more data than ever before. These shared Wi-Fi/ Cellular networks are susceptible to traffic congestions and poor signal strength so cannot scale easily to support future growth.
What we are pitching to airports is a purpose-built, private LTE (pLTE) network, separate from the Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity provided to passengers. This private-wireless broadband connectivity is dedicated to prioritising airport operational communications. It also forms the foundation for the evolution in wireless connectivity: 5G.

Which airports are you currently working with?

Our solution is currently deployed at several major gateways including Helsinki and Vienna. At the latter, there were huge issues at the gate, because aircraft wings were blocking Wi-Fi signals. It’s a common problem at the airport’s we’re talking to. If someone working on ground operations suddenly loses connectivity, it will ultimately have a huge impact on turnaround times. But at Vienna, ground handlers can connect to this private LTE network, which is helping to improve operational performance. It provides coverage from nose to tail while an aircraft is at the gate.

But it’s not just the bigger hubs we’re focused on. We are currently engaged with a small US airport with less than 1 million passengers per year.

How does it help enhance the passenger experience?

In the first instance, the pLTE environment improves the reliability of turnaround times, therefore offering a streamlined travel experience from check-in to take-off. Baggage and ground services crew can rely on secure, reliable connectivity, so can perform their jobs more efficiently, while pilots and cabin crew on the aircraft can also access real-time data and updates on their mobile devices. Plus, pLTE routers can be integrated into a variety of vehicles that require reliable connectivity throughout the entire airfield, which again will improve operational efficiency when it comes to marshallers accessing updates on runway activity and project flight traffic. What’s more, once it’s implemented, pLTE allows airports to offload operational services from the Wi-Fi and cellular networks, so all that additional capacity will be dedicated to the passengers, providing them with a faster and better wireless connection in the terminal.

Beyond that, pLTE can help improve situational awareness and response times for emergency response vehicles and teams as well as security personnel.

Can it help generate non-aeronautical revenue?

Airports have an option to monetise their pLTE by commercialising specific wireless travel services towards customers such as airlines, ground handling and baggage handling systems companies, and aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) companies.

Can it be integrated with existing Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity within the terminal?

Yes, either an airport continues to use the existing Wi-Fi within the terminal or the existing distributed antenna system (DAS) network can carry the pLTE service, ensuring dedicated wireless services for airport operations inside the terminal.

What is your vision for Nokia and airports of the future?

We will continue to help define the fabric of the digital airport providing solutions that provide the communication foundations for more reliable, efficient, operational processes. We will also continue to augment these processes with data analytics, predictive intelligence and IoT applications.