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Wireless Internet coming to airport

By Ed Brock

Sitting in the lobby of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Eddie Huff looked at the screen of his laptop in dismay.

He was looking for "Wi-Fi," a wireless fidelity connection that would give him access to the Internet and e-mail without plugging his computer into anything. It wasn't there yet.

"I'm surprised," said Huff, who lives in Augusta and was on his way to Minneapolis.

Across the atrium, Daniel Aghion was a little less patient.

"It's pitiful. This is the one airport in the country without it," said Aghion, a Boston businessman who frequently comes to Atlanta. "(His Wi-Fi) doesn't work on the plane and I need to send somebody some e-mail."

By September both men, and other travelers passing through the world's busiest airport with a sudden need for Internet access, should be happier. At that time Hartsfield-Jackson should have in place its own Wi-Fi system that will allow access from any where in the airport.

"Half of our passengers are traveling on business. Now they will be able to connect back to their company network via our new Wi-Fi system," said Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Ben DeCosta.

The system will include 100 access points to cover the 5.8 million square feet of the terminal and outlying areas, providing the service even in the underground transportation mall that runs under the concourses. There's a big irony with a "wireless" system like this, said Lance Lyttle, chief information officer at Hartsfield-Jackson.

"There's a whole lot of wires behind those antennas," Lyttle said.

Those wires are being laid and connected to what will be the network operation center (NOC) where about six or seven people, airport employees and outside consultants, will monitor the hundreds of nodes on plasma screen TVs.

Each node will have color-coded status signals, green for good, yellow as a warning of trouble and red meaning the node is down.

"Their role is to make sure everything is remaining green," Lyttle said regarding the technicians in the NOC.

Customers will also be able to call the NOC to report problems at a phone number that will be posted throughout the airport and on the "flash screen" that first appears when a user first enters the system.

Hartsfield-Jackson will use a "neutral host" system that will allow users to access the Web via their usual subscriber service or to log on as a one-time or "pop up" user. Initially Lyttle expects most of the users to be "pop ups."

"Eventually it's going to migrate over to more and more subscribers," Lyttle said.

There will be two levels of security in the system, Lyttle said. There will be a private system that will be used by airport tenants and the Atlanta Department of Aviation only with no access from outside, and then there will be a private system that, of course, will have to allow some access.

Once subscribers to regular Wi-Fi providers are connected to those providers' servers, the provider takes over security.

Already several airport tenants, including the Transportation Security Administration and Paschal's restaurant, have expressed interest in using the Wi-Fi system, Lyttle said.

Lyttle also mentioned that part of the service will be a "distributed antenna system" that will connect all cell phones to a common system to eliminate dead zones "so the passenger will have a seamless experience as they travel through the airport."

Aghion is, in fact, executive director of the Wireless Internet Institute in Boston and said the system has been a long time coming.

"It's been 'supposed to start in September' for the past three years," Aghion said.