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At Austin airport, Wi-Fi predicts how long the security line will be

Stephen Lawson | Oct. 24, 2014
Using signals from passengers' devices, the system collects data that can help travelers plan ahead.

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The Internet can ease travel concerns in many ways, including flight-delay information, maps of road congestion, and ride-sharing apps. But a Wi-Fi network at the Austin, Texas, airport can now answer one of the great unknowns: How long will I have to wait in line at security?

That information is available thanks to fairly simple technology implemented on a Cisco Systems network run by global Wi-Fi provider Boingo Wireless. It's an early example of how the so-called Internet of Things can make some parts of life easier.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport got the nation's first airport Wi-Fi network in 2000, according to Boingo, which has run the airport's Wi-Fi since 2008. Now it's become one of the first airports to implement Passpoint, the standard that lets users of some devices get on networks and roam between them without entering a username and password. The Cisco network that supports Passpoint can also use location technologies for additional services.

Travelers don't even need to get on the network to take advantage of the security-wait warning system. A forecast for how long each line will take appears on screens right outside the security checkpoint. And any traveler who goes through security with a device that has Wi-Fi or Bluetooth turned on also helps to make the system work, according to Boingo CTO Derek Peterson. Boingo has launched the wait-sensing technology at three airports, all in trial mode, and Austin's is the first facility where it's displaying the information.

Here's how the system works: Wi-Fi devices with standard settings turned on constantly send out signals looking for nearby Wi-Fi devices and access points. Access points near the security checkpoints detect those signals and the unique MAC (media access control) addresses associated with them. Using that data, the system determines when that device entered the area of the queue and when it reached the other end of the checkpoint, after the owner finished with security.

In some areas, the airport does the same thing with beacons that detect Bluetooth signals emitted by users' devices. The unique Bluetooth ID identifies each device, so it works the same way as a MAC address. In some areas, the system uses both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Despite using a unique identifier for each device, the system doesn't identify the person carrying that device, Peterson said: The airport isn't concerned with who's made it through security, just how long it took them to get through.

There's one wait-time display for each line to go through security, so before they get in line, travelers can join the one with the shortest wait. In effect, they do their own load balancing, which can minimize the wait time for everyone.

 

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