In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act to “provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced telecommunications and information technologies and services to all Americans ...” That’s all well and good, but what does it actually mean? “More simply put, part of the act was designed to allow wireless communcation providers with access to public spaces,” explained Veronica Rose, president and CEO of Aurora Electric, Inc., Jamaica, N.Y.

In November 1999, the partnership formed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and New York Telecom Partners approached Aurora Electric to bid on the contract that would eventually establish a wireless telecommunication system throughout the area’s three main airports. The high-tech system designed by LGC Wireless, San Jose, Calif., uses advanced shielded cabling developed by ITT Industries, headquartered in White Plains, N.Y. “The idea was for New York Telecom Partners to provide the Port Authority with a wireless infrastructure that it could then make available to wireless communication providers at a certain rate charge,” Rose said. The project was a winning situation for everyone; the Port Authority could provide airports with wireless communcation access and generate revenue, New York Telecom Partners would receive residual revenue fees from the wireless providers, travelers with cell phones would get continual coverage in an environment that traditionally has not had a signal, and wireless providers would get the additional revenues from its customers being actually able to make calls. Most major carriers are involved in one or more of the airport projects, including AT&T Wireless, Sprint, Nextel, Verizon and VoiceStream.

Aurora Electric was one of three electrical contractors and telecommunications companies invited by LGC to bid on the contract. “When LGC’s engineers first created the design parameters for the wireless infrastructure, they asked the terminal managers and airline representatives for recommendations, and our name was repeatedly mentioned,” recalled Rose. Aurora has been involved in transportation market projects since its inception in 1995 and, in addition to installing communcation and IT systems, the company has experience working on laser docking systems, secure facility access systems, and fire alarm and airline ticketing systems. Aurora has had a presence at all of the New York area airports since 1996 and has installed intelligent systems for the both the facilities and for individual airlines. “We have developed a reputation of being able to troubleshoot and solve complex communication and information technology (IT) system problems,” Rose added.

While waiting to find out if Aurora was going to win the award, the company provided LGC with valuable information about the airport facilities and helped facilitate communcation between LGC’s engineers and various airline representatives. Providing such added-value services paid off and Aurora was granted the contract in May 2000.

The contract also called for Aurora to act as a general contractor for the project, which included being responsible for hiring personnel and for coordinating construction activities with all of the other trades. “LGC believed that it was geographically too difficult for them to oversee the project on site and decided that we would become a single source of services for the entire project,” Rose said.

Work on the Telecommunication Network Access System (TNAS) project began in June 2000 and was completed in December 2001. The $3 million contract included $200,000 for the installation of traditional power distribution and lighting systems. The balance was for the installation of fiber optic and copper cabling for the wireless infrastructure at all three airports. “We began work with 16 electricians and technicians on site, and as the project progressed, we averaged around eight workers,” Rose said. Most of the work had to be scheduled for night, after airline traffic had substantially subsided or ceased, forcing the company to carefully balance the project’s requirements, available access to the facilities, and the project schedule with the increased overtime costs of working at night.

Scope of Work

At each airport, Aurora first installed 12-count multimode fiber optic cable (MMF) at the point of interface (POI), that point in the system that the wireless infrastructure ties into the terminals’ T1 land lines. At the interface point, the company then built the necessary telecommunication racks, which consist of the main hubs, distribution panels, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, and the wire management devices. “We also had to tie into the halo grounding system at the POI,” Rose added.

From the point of interface, Aurora electricians and technicians ran the MMF optic backbone out to each of the expansion hub cabinets that were placed in strategic locations. Wireless antennas also had to be installed 200 feet or less from each of the expansion hubs using copper CAT 5E cable. “The site survey performed by LGC engineers determined the placement of the antennas to establish total coverage, which then determined how many expansion hubs were required and where they needed to be placed,” explained Rose.

In total, 99 expansion hubs were needed: twenty-seven at Newark International Airport, 12 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and 60 at LaGuardia International Airport. Approximately 1,240 antennas were installed for voice communication, plus an additional 336 for data transmission at Newark. “The antenna systems that provide the cell coverage resemble a honeycomb structure with each antenna defining each cell area. A cell can be as small as one room, or up to twenty miles across,” said Rose. The cells created by the system will provide seamless coverage for the 92 million passengers who travel through these airports each year. The system was also designed to ensure that cell phone transmissions did not interfere with vital ground and air communications.

Most of the equipment is unnoticeable, with antennas no larger than credit cards that are painted the same color as the ceiling tiles. In addition, the hubs, which are hidden in utility closets, look like small refrigerators. “There was no other way to bring cellular and data inside these facilities without having an unattractive antenna farm,” Rose observed.

Because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandates the availability of cell phone coverage in public places, other transportation hubs are also included in the Port Authority’s plans, including the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) trains, and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.

Unique Challenges Met

Airport buildings experience a great deal of vibration, which is one of the leading causes of poor cell phone reception. “Vibration also interferes with securing the antennas that boost the phone signals,” said Rose. Fasteners could not be metal, which would also interfere with reception signals, nor could they be made of PVCs, which are toxic when burning. Instead the company used nylon screws and anchors to hold the antennas in place throughout all three airports. Aurora also experimented with a prototype ceiling tile from Armstrong Tile that has the antennas molded into the acoustical ceiling panel from inside. The prototype was used with only a dozen antennas at the Newark airport. “LGC and Armstrong will take one year to evaluate the effectives and desirability of the preformed tile in future installations,” Rose said.

Access to the airport terminals and other facilities presented a daunting task. Aurora’s electricians and technicians had to work in the airports after travel traffic had subsided, but that was also when most airport personnel were gone for the day. “We planned the operation down to the smallest details and closely coordinated schedules so that we could ensure that the necessary facility personnel could provide access to secure areas during any given shift,” Rose explained. Repeated contact was made daily with airport personnel to guarantee that all access issues were addressed before work commenced in that particular area and that everyone knew what the plan was for the next few, or several days. “Coordination was especially important for secure areas because the Port Authority required that all nonairport personnel be accompanied by a full-time facility security guard,” Rose added.

It is estimated that up to 40 percent of people at these airports will use the wireless infrastructure at some point in their travels, making this new market a great opportunity for cabling designers, manufacturers and installers. “These three airports are the global flagship project for providing wireless telecommunication in transportation centers,” Rose said. EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or by e-mail at dbremer@erols.com.