Betacom bets private wireless at airports will take off

Nobody wants to sit on an airplane any longer than necessary, and if it’s the baggage handling system that’s holding things up, that’s not good. That’s one place private wireless is trying to make a difference.

Betacom was recognized earlier this year with a 2021 OnGo award for its work with the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) Airport. Using OnGo-enabled scanners as part of a network trial, DFW was able to speed up baggage handling and reduce lost baggage costs using unlicensed Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.

During much of the pandemic, few people were getting on planes, and airlines and airports laid off a lot of people. Then, as restrictions eased and people started to travel again, it became more and more difficult for airlines and airports to keep up with hiring and training new personnel.

Nowadays, “they’re trying to focus more on automation,” said Betacom CEO Johan Bjorklund. The more automation happens during baggage handling, the quicker they can turn the planes around at the gates. If they can get 20% more planes at the gate, that can help tremendously.

Wi-Fi not the answer here

Wi-Fi is popular at airports, but its popularity is driving airports to seek out their own private networks.

Passengers who are just coming off a plane, for example, are suddenly jumping on the airport’s Wi-Fi and that’s part of the reason the airport or airline wants their own CBRS network, said Senza Fili founder Monica Paolini, who recently published a report about private wireless and airports; Betacom sponsored the report.

In fact, the airport is the best case and worst case scenario, she said. “It’s the best case scenario in terms of motivating private networks, but for Wi-Fi, it’s a worst case” in the sense that people who are waiting for a flight will sit there watching videos via the Wi-Fi. That’s why the Wi-Fi at an airport doesn’t always work the greatest – everyone is trying to use it.

“It’s the success of Wi-Fi that creates this sort of unhappiness” because everybody is using it, she said. If you’re an airline or airport owner, it’s a real problem if the luggage gets delayed because the Wi-Fi network is getting bogged down. With a private network, the management of the luggage can move to the private network, giving the airport more control.

“A very successful trial”

After permitting and associated tasks, it didn’t take long to get a private wireless network up and running at DFW, according to Bjorklund. “It took a few days only,” he said. The coverage was “quite tremendous,” he added, noting that increased efficiencies in the baggage handling system can save 10 minutes per flight.

“All in all, we feel that this was a very successful trial for Dallas Fort-Worth, for American Airlines and for Betacom,” he said.

They used the General Authorized Access (GAA)/unlicensed portion of the CBRS 3.5 GHz band.

T-Mobile has made a point of saying it’s got great solutions for airlines like Alaska Airlines, which it announced a partnership with earlier this year. But Betacom doesn’t see them as a competitive threat. “That’s not really in competition with what we do,” he said. “It’s complementary to what we do.”

Betacom sees its solutions as competing more with the likes of Boingo Wireless. That said, Wi-Fi is a great solution in a lot of situations, but some business critical applications do better with dedicated spectrum.

The C-band controversy that wireless carriers dealt with late last year and into this year was directly related to their wireless gear relative to airports around the country. Aviation officials were concerned (and still are) that C-band antennas for 5G would interfere with the altimeters on airplanes. The C-band, at 3.7 GHz, is just north of the 3.5 GHz CBRS band. 

Bjorklund had concerns about mainstream media portraying it as a 5G issue. “It wasn’t a 5G issue. It was a very specific spectrum issue,” he said. That wasn’t always easy for everyone to understand at the beginning of the year. “I thought that we got in front of that,” in conversations with airport officials.

To be fair, Boeing had recommended a 100 MHz guard band and the FCC granted a guard band twice that size. “The fact that this became an issue the way it did was, I think, a bit unfair to the C-band owners at the time, but I think they found a solution to that,” he said.

High ambitions

Betacom’s ambitions are to have a private wireless deployment in at least 50% of the airports in the U.S. Betacom is talking with a number of airports, he said. An airport is almost like a realtor in the sense that its clients are the airlines. Airlines ideally want to take their devices from one airport to another and everything will just work fine. The mobility that’s inherent in the mobile standards is a great fit.

Of course, 5G offers higher speeds, more bandwidth and lower latencies, but almost all the critical applications out there today can be handled by LTE, Bjorklund said.

“5G will have a lot of use cases moving forward, but right now … it’s somewhat impaired” by the lack of devices. “We’re seeing those [5G devices] picking up though,” he told Fierce last month.

CBRS launched with the 4G LTE version of 3GPP technology; the 5G version is defined in 3GPP Release 16. Even though that’s been out for a while now, vendors need time to implement the standard in their equipment.

“We’re actually starting to see the first 5G radios on CBRS,” he said, declining to say exactly when Betacom will start deployments of 5G CBRS radios. In other words: Stay tuned.