Will Boston airport Wi-Fi rift set an ugly precedent?

Will Boston airport Wi-Fi rift set an ugly precedent?

Summary: With both amusement and horror, I've been following a dispute that has erupted between Continental Airlines and MassPort -- the Massachusetts agency that runs Boston's Logan Airport -- over Continental's installation of a WiFi network that's freely available to some of its customers (for Internet access).  Not only has the story turned up all over the Web, but it's made the local papers and television stations here in Massachusetts where I live.

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TOPICS: Wi-Fi
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With both amusement and horror, I've been following a dispute that has erupted between Continental Airlines and MassPort -- the Massachusetts agency that runs Boston's Logan Airport -- over Continental's installation of a WiFi network that's freely available to some of its customers (for Internet access).  Not only has the story turned up all over the Web, but it's made the local papers and television stations here in Massachusetts where I live.   Almost everybody's instincts on this one are to follow the money.  MassPort has threatened to take whatever steps are necessary to shut down the free WiFi network.  Meanwhile, it's not as if Continental's passengers would be left without access to a WiFi network if that network was disabled.  MassPort has one that costs $7.95 per day. 

My first response of course is that if you're one of those people who finds yourself in that sort of pay-per-day situation on a regular basis, you're probably better off just going the EVDO route as I have gone.  Logan Airport is a perfect example of place with a lot of dead air (the WiFi network only works in certain spots) and with EVDO connectivity, you don't have get your credit card out, tweak your configuration, or snuggle up to another weary traveler that's hogging the hottest spot.  As I just wrote earlier this week, with EVDO, you can go pretty much anywhere (within your wireless carrier's coverage area), anytime.

My second response is that if MassPort prevails, this could set an incredibly ugly precedent for what I thought was freely available, unregulated airspace.   MassPort may be aware of the fact that its on shaky ground (I can't be sure.  It hasn't returned my phone calls).   One sign of this is that it's citing security as a reason that Continental Airlines can't run its access point. According to a report by News.com's Declan McCullagh, MassPort is claiming that "Continental's free service poses an 'unacceptable potential risk' to communications gear used by the state police and the Transportation Security Administration. This may throw some off the money track.  But until MassPort, the Massachusetts State Police, or the TSA can offer real proof of that risk, my nose is still on the money track.

Short of getting any answers from the horse's mouth, I tried to imagine what, if any, risk could be posed to the communications gear used by those other agencies.  I also wondered how is it that Logan's WiFi installation is able to mitigate that risk and Continental Airlines' network is not.   My last question was, if companies like Intel can run WiFi networks in other airports, how could it be that the TSA isn't equally sensitive to those networks in the other airports as it is to Continental's network in Logan.   My call to the TSA has so far gone unreturned.  Judging by the way the Massachusetts State Police spokesperson Sharon Costine told me "If you need any further information (she provided none to me in the first place), we have to refer you to MassPort," it's hard not to jump to the conclusion that the State Police had no idea what risks I was asking about.   That could explain why the TSA hasn't gotten back to me either.

So, I reached out to other experts in the area.  At first, I couldn't think of any risks.  But then, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether or not those agencies might be relying on Logan's existing Wi-Fi network for some of their mission critical, security-related activities and whether MassPort was worried that the introduction of another WiFi network into the air at Logan might result in an interruption of service.  For example, what might happen if a piece of WiFi-enabled gear belonging to the TSA mistakenly attached itself to the wrong network? Two of my neighbors, both of whom run their own WiFi access point, have seen their systems mistakenly attaching to my WiFi network.  Could such connection confusion interfere with homeland security? 

A spokesperson for one company with expertise in the technology who asked not to be identified found that explanation to be implausible -- basically saying that we've got a much bigger problem if (a) either agency was depending on an unsecured, unregulated medium for such critical communications and (b) even if they were depending on Logan's WiFi network for some application, that the state of the state of WiFi technology has evolved well beyond the point of ensuring that certain gear can only attach to certain networks.

I also had a chat with Kevin Hayes, distinguished engineer at WiFi radio maker Atheros.  He corroborated most of what my first source told me but added a few noteworthy nuggets.  Said Hayes, "If someone puts up an 802.11 network and expects that it will be interference free in a public area like an airport, they're just deluding themselves."  Implying that an access point isn' t the only WiFi device that can contribute to a cacophony of WiFi signals, Hayes went on to say that "People have laptops on all the time. When they turn them on, those laptops they visit every WiFi channel.  It's not a good thing to think your access point is isolated from anything."  I gave this some thought for a moment and then the EVDO option sprang into my head again.  Of course! Nothing prevents me or anyone else from sitting down anywhere in Logan's airport, setting my notebooks' WiFi radio to the "ad-hoc mode" and becoming an access point through which other WiFi users in the airport can gain access to my EVDO-based Internet connection (if I want them too, of course). 

I also raised the question of whether such a "rogue" access point could interfere with some other kind of gear that operates in the same frequency (2.4 Ghz, assuming it supports 802.11b which almost all public hotspots do).   Maybe the State Police are using cordless phones (my WiFi network causes all sorts of clicks, clacks and hangups to my 2.4 Ghz Siemens cordless at home).  Hayes reminded me that we're talking about an unlicensed spectrum.  "If you tell me that the TSA is making secret equipment that operates in an unlicensed band," said Hayes, "that's a bad idea. There's plenty of unlicensed spectrum [they can assign to that equipment if it exists] and the government just has to pay themselves to get access to it."

Either that or, they can pay MassPort $7.95 per day once it gets to monopolize the supposedly unmonopolizable airwaves.  Obviously, I can't say that for sure that there isn't some exotic risk that MassPort is aware of and that they just don't want publicized.   But short of evidence of such a risk, a precedent is about to be set in this situation that will ultimately affect virtually all public place.  Let's hope it's the right one.

Topic: Wi-Fi

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36 comments
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  • Real motives

    If home land security was this pathetic, I'm really worried.

    " For example, what might happen if a piece of WiFi-enabled gear belonging to the TSA mistakenly attached itself to the wrong network? Two of my neighbors, both of whom run their own WiFi access point, have seen their systems mistakenly attaching to my WiFi network. Could such connection confusion intefere with homeland security?"

    You can't accidentally associate with a different AP and SSID unless you consciously connect to it. Surely they're not so dumb to misconfigure their SSIDs. Surely they're not sharing SSIDs.

    There is a very simple solution to this and I spoke of this in my "Spectrum hog" article. All the airport needs to do is take 2 Wi-Fi channels 1 and 4 and tell everyone else to use 8 and 11. But competition for spectrum is a red herring because their true motive is that they don't want to compete for Wi-Fi revenue.
    george_ou
    • There are many ways to prevent

      mistaken wifi connections. Don't broadcast the ssid. Use wep or some form of authentication on private or for rent AP's.

      If your neighbors are connecting to the wrong AP, they need a lesson in wifi!

      Your whole post shows your lack of knowledge when it comes to wifi!
      bjbrock
      • You're telling me I don't know Wi-Fi?

        "Your whole post shows your lack of knowledge when it comes to wifi!"

        Is that supposed to be a joke? If it is, I?m rolling on the ground laughing.
        george_ou
        • wifi or Wi-Fi?

          I think he says you don't know wee-fee (wifi). I can say that I don't know that either!
          Roger Ramjet
          • Turnabout fair play

            For years airlines have prevented me from using my cell phone in the air because it might "interfer" with the aircraft's instuments, when the only thing it would interfer with is the hefty cut the airline gets from their installed air-to-ground phone system.

            While I'm sorry to see MassPort trying such a thing and would be unhappy to see them succeed, I believe that the FCC & FAA should have gotten together a decade ago to prevent airlines from using the air safety ploy to line their pockets with the cell phone ploy.

            The refusal of the federal govenment to regulate in areas they have the authority to regulate, especially in the interest of the citizenry vice the major corporations is just pitiful. If only they showed the same restraint in areas they have no business interfering in.
            carlino
    • I agree, greed is the key to this issue

      they want to sell something that someone else is giving away free, plain and simple
      JasonL31
  • Oh please...

    Does anyone truly believe the bull being dished out by Massport? Gosh, Portland (PDX) and Las Vegas (LAS) airports both have FREE Wi-Fi throughout. Wow, I'll bet those airports are being brought to their knees every day by rogue Wi-Fi'ers.
    riredale
  • ATTA BOY to Continental Air

    MassPort must not be allowed to prevail. I would seek to find other locations that the company operates (UNDER OTHER NAMES) and offer FREE WiFi in those locations also. The BAD GUY may be Logan as they may have lease "exclusive rights" where they certainly didn't have the authority. The WiFi operator should have known they could not exercise exclusivity. A at that contract (in Boston) would be very informative.
    oldewoodcutter
  • ... and now anyone can become rich installing wireless access points...

    I think that's how the ad went, I mean it was on tv for some time.... "it takes credit or cash, but hurry, the good locations are going fast..."
    pesky_z
  • That's why the FCC allocates radio frequency bands.

    I can't believe that the WIFI network poses any risk whatsoever. Unless the WIFI network is somehow operating out of the authorized band and spilling over into adjacent bands, Massport doesn't have a case. Even then, the police bands are well down into the VHF band, I think. So, it would take a very sloppily designed WIFI gear (in the GHz region) that is transmitting harmonics to interfere with police radio. What about other sources of potential interferences in the airport like radar operated automatic doors, etc? Has Massport complained about those?
    jpgeorgia
  • Logan Airport, MA? Home of the 9-11 hijackings?

    They have the nerve to talk about homeland security? They have the gall to cite it as a reason to squash out free Wi-Fi?

    It was a combination of their incompetence and greedy cost-cutting in airport security which allowed the terrorists to pull off 9-11 so smoothly. They shouldn't be worried about things like Wi-Fi networking until after they have resolved their physical security issues. Issues, which according to several reports I have read, persist to this very day.

    Such greed will be our undoing. It causes critical infrastructure to go unprotected while money grubbing thugs compete to see who can charge the most for a free service.

    The real terrorists are watching our country destroy the very civil liberties and free-market systems which made it great, and they are laughing from the other side of the world.

    Boston <heavy sigh>, well thank the gods I don't have to live there.

    Regards,
    Jon
    JonathonDoe
  • most airports don't run their Wi-Fi

    If you look carefully, most airports don't run their own Wi-Fi networks. No, just like the terminal coffee shop(s), the airport has signed a contract giving exclusive rights to a 3rd party to install their equipment. Starbucks wouldn't very well tolerate Dunn Bros setting up a free pot in front of their counter.

    Of course the difference is that the airport lets Starbucks and Dunn Bros compete. Wi-Fi providers typically don't.

    The only thing the airports can contract is equipment placement. Figure out how to legally beam Wi-Fi from outside the airport and there isn't a thing the airport (or it's Wi-Fi vendor) can do.

    I doubt many non-business travelers will pay the exhorbitant rates charged by the Wi-Fi providers. Actually, I doubt the airports get many of the business travellers either.

    Certainly they don't get me. I wait until I get to my hotel where these days, broadband Internet access is bundled into the room price. As I rarely have more than a hour of two to park my rear-end between flights, if I was really desperate, I would tie into one of the telephones with data ports for 15 minutes.

    On the other hand - airports could do themselves a BIG service by giving their passengers something more to do than stare at the monitor running CNN. Many small airports offer free Wi-Fi to travellers.

    I can envision big airports offering free Wi-Fi via their portal. A banner section could appear on every page offering not only saleable advertising space, but information on airport status. The ability to access airline web sites from inside the secured terminal to check specific flight status, book or re-book other flights, arrange accomodations and ground transportation would be wonderful.

    And hey, maybe I might spend a few minutes browsing the web instead of grumbling about late flights.
    Jim Johnson
  • Greed vs Stupidty

    It doesn't matter if it a a major company buying legislation to keep Cities from offering WiFi. Or a local government agency (usually appointed) that wants to protect their monopoly. Greed is Stupid. Greed can be fought, but STUPID is with us forever. For now, avoid Logan Airport.
    plumley@...
  • Only For Club Patrons

    Continental doesn't produce an airport-wide hot spot. They merely have access points inside their airport lounges (President's Clubs) which are only for their paid members. Depending on elite levels, these clubs cost several hundred dollars for an annual membership, and the Internet access is like many of the other amenities they provide free to members, like food, cocktails, newspapers. The only difference is that their WiFi signal "leaks" out slightly into adjacent terminal space. If you stand right outside of a President's club, you can get access to their signal.

    One way Continental could challenge Massport is to put a WEP key on their access points, which they only give out the key to their members. They would want to pick a new SSID for them though, so other open club locations don't share the same SSID names, so your laptop settings don't get cumbersome as you travel to different airport clubs.
    flexstrat
  • This was decided by the FCC a year ago

    See http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-04-1844A1.pdf for the FCC press release.

    Also see http://www.computerweekly.com/Articles/2004/06/28/203456/AirlineswinWi-Fimanagementbattlewithairports.htm
    johndoe445566
  • Boston has...

    Completely abused the public trust, laws, and it's responsibility to remain neutral in a competitive environment.

    I see this going to the Supreme Court eventually.
    BitTwiddler
  • Free vs. Paid

    I travel between Albuquerque and Salt Lake City a few times a year and it always amazes me that our little airport here in Albuquerque has free WiFi and SLC requires payment. For those who don't know SLC is one of the major Hubs for Delta Airlines and a large number of business travelers go through there on a daily basis. I have never understood why Delta wouldn't offer free access there as a service to their flyers, because neither I, nor anyone else herded into the smokers lounge by the gates has ever paid the 8.95 a day that they charge.
    raymondftz
  • Boston AP WiFI Precedent

    Its sadd that in the state that Independance was born, its regional authorities do not live up to the same spirit of the constitution. Free speach and enterprise are part of that. If I wanted to set up a business at point "a", my neighbor has every right to set up a similar business at nearby point "b", and perhaps offering some (or all) of my product fro free. That's HIS RIGHT. And so it is with Continental. Perhaps MassPort should re-evaluate its position in the "retail" environment. My personal experience has shown me that "Government" stinks at running anythink but its own mouth.
    Jaytmoon
  • Boston AP WiFI Precedent

    Its sadd that in the state that Independance was born, its regional authorities do not live up to the same spirit of the constitution. Free speach and enterprise are part of that. If I wanted to set up a business at point "a", my neighbor has every right to set up a similar business at nearby point "b", and perhaps offering some (or all) of my product fro free. That's HIS RIGHT. And so it is with Continental. Perhaps MassPort should re-evaluate its position in the "retail" environment. My personal experience has shown me that "Government" stinks at running anything but its own mouth.
    Jaytmoon
  • Boston AP WiFI Precedent

    Its sadd that in the state that Independance was born, its regional authorities do not live up to the same spirit of the constitution. Free speach and enterprise are part of that. If I wanted to set up a business at point "a", my neighbor has every right to set up a similar business at nearby point "b", and perhaps offering some (or all) of my product for free. That's HIS RIGHT. And so it is with Continental. Perhaps MassPort should re-evaluate its position in the "retail" environment. My personal experience has shown me that "Government" stinks at running anything but its own mouth.
    Jaytmoon