BA and BAA should make Wi-Fi pay

The problems faced by the airline industry could be eased a little by increasing the amount of revenue generated by selling wireless access services

In the week in which British Airways finally announced it is retiring its loss-making fleet of Concorde aircraft, airports and beleaguered airlines are looking at additional ways to make money -- and Wi-Fi access provision for travellers is a small but fast growing area for them.

BAA, one of the world's largest owners of airports around the world, has now announced a Wi-Fi hot spot at Heathrow Terminal 1 in London, an offering put together with the help of BT Openzone and Intel, which is currently pushing its Centrino bundle of wireless technology used inside laptops.

Customers eating at T1 departure lounge restaurants such as Est Est Est will see co-branded Wi-Fi signs featuring logos for the Wi-Fi Alliance, BT Openzone and Intel Centrino. Accounts can even be opened at a nearby 'duty free' branch of Dixons.

Intel believes it is adding a quality stamp in such cases -- in line with its attempts to validate hundreds of hot spots across the UK for use with Centrino. Some observers believe that the chips giant is trying to make its brand synonymous with Wi-Fi.

Rick Skett, UK MD of Intel, told "Some (hot spots) frankly haven't been up to scratch, so we offer to work with them, to give them guidance."

But while hot spot operators such as BT Openzone and Megabeam, recently bought by Swisscom, are trying to reach as many high-value locations as possible, there has been some concern that location owners are dragging their feet.

While BAA now offers Wi-Fi access at several of its terminals, many business travellers point to lack of blanket coverage. A company such as BT Openzone or Megabeam will talk about the number of airports it is in -- well into double figures now -- but bristle when asked about the obvious locations it isn't in.

A spokesman for BAA said: "BAA has decided it will use different providers in different places because of the different travellers coming through." The thinking is that where the majority of travellers might be Britons going on holiday one brand will work best, while another might be better suited to a more international, business-oriented setting.

But as airport owners look to wireless networks as a new revenue stream or reason to make travellers use their terminals, airlines are continuing to take Wi-Fi to the sky. A new report from Frost & Sullivan (F&S) shows wireless will increasingly become part of in-flight entertainment (IFE) offerings.

The analyst house says it is useful -- though not absolutely necessary -- for equipment providers to have their wares included in Airbus' and Boeing's parts catalogues. Then airlines can more easily take advantage of using wireless equipment for data communications and distributing films and other entertainment in-flight. For example, using the technology means planes carry less weight and so less fuel is consumed.

However, F&S principal analyst Jerry Weltsch warns: "If economies of scale are not achieved, as happened with in-flight voice communications, in-flight data communications will have limited long-term potential."

Click here to see a map of the UK's Wi-Fi hot spots.

Discover the latest developments in Wi-Fi, 3G, GPRS and other cutting-edge wireless technologies at ZDNet UK's Wireless News Section.

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