RDU pressured to offer free Wi-Fi

Staff WriterNovember 29, 2010 

The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority is raking in more money from travelers who are willing to pay for wireless Internet service, but it is hearing more gripes from folks who want their Wi-Fi free.

"Your continuing to charge for wireless Internet is dated, non-competitive, and a bit bush-league in the modern world," said W. Steven Burke of Hillsborough, who heads the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina, in a comment posted at RDU's feedback website.

Airport officials worry that service quality would deteriorate if they switched to free Wi-Fi. But some travelers are complaining now that RDU's Wi-Fi is balky and unreliable.

About 8 percent of all outbound passengers at RDU go online while they wait to board their flights - up from 3 percent in early 2009, according to Mark Posner, RDU's deputy director for information services.

They use subscription services or pay AT&T $7.95 for a single day's online sessions. The airport collects 60 percent of each payment.

RDU will make about $240,000 in Wi-Fi fees this year, Posner told RDU Airport Authority board members recently. More travelers have complained that the service should be provided free - 65 feedback comments filed in the past two years. But the increase in paying customers makes RDU officials reluctant to change.

Twenty-five of the nation's 50 largest airports offer free Wi-Fi, Posner said. Some of these offer a hybrid, with the option of paid Wi-Fi for travelers who want a guarantee of higher bandwidth and faster Internet connections. The other 25 airports, like RDU, offer paid Wi-Fi only.

Some airports that switched to free Wi-Fi in recent years began fielding a different kind of complaint, Posner said - about poor Internet service quality. Travelers jammed the free service with streaming video and other heavy-bandwidth activity.

"You get the business people who say, 'I can't do my e-mail. I can't do my corporate stuff. Give me a paid option so I can get this done in 10 minutes rather than wait for 45 minutes,' " he said.

But the airport also is getting those complaints about poor quality with its $7.95 paid service. David Imre, a Baltimore executive who visits the Triangle once a month, says RDU's Wi-Fi is "maddeningly slow."

"Today I decided purposely not to buy it," Imre said by telephone Tuesday from RDU, as he waited for his flight. "Because it was onerous to log in, make payment, and try to use it. It seems to be a very thin pipeline.

"It's a bargain if I can get an hour or two hours of work done, but I want a service I can count on that is robust," Imre said.

A News & Observer reporter tried unsuccessfully to buy Wi-Fi service in RDU Terminal 2 on Wednesday, the busiest travel day of the year, when the airport handled about 32,000 passengers.

Posner checked with technicians and said the AT&T service was out of commission. Service was restored three hours later. He said AT&T has promised to triple the bandwidth to accommodate users.

"I'm not sure where we are with that project," Posner said. "I expected it would have been done by now."

Airport revenues would drop to about $80,000 a year if RDU adopted the hybrid mix of free and paid Wi-Fi service, Posner said. The money flow would change directions if RDU made Wi-Fi free for everyone; that would require extra spending to support an increased bandwidth demand.

Casey Manfrin, an Oregon-based marketing executive who has visited the Triangle twice since midsummer, was annoyed after spending 20 minutes in a failed effort to buy Wi-Fi at RDU.

"I was at the Boise airport recently, and they had big banners proclaiming that Boise was offering free Internet to improve the customer experience," he said.

"Here this is the Research Triangle, and this is supposed to be at least a moderately high-tech area," Manfrin said. "And it was my feeling that it was kind of old-fashioned and slow."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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