Mike Weaver became awash with worry when a visiting Belgian military officer failed to show up at Kansas City International Airport.
The officer from Belgium was supposed to be on hand to greet his wife and two daughters, who were to fly in and join him at Fort Leavenworth, but the officer was a no-show when his family arrived at Terminal C. Using an iPad, Weaver tried to track down the officer’s cellphone number but was unable to connect with the airport’s free Wi-Fi service.
“We spend a lot of money on streetcars, but the Wi-Fi at our airport doesn’t work,” said Weaver, an instructor at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, who eventually managed to track down the husband.
“It doesn’t paint a very good picture of Kansas City for those who are coming through here.”
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The spotty Wi-Fi service at KCI is a frequent complaint for local residents and those passing through the airport — and airport officials are working to fix that.
They say they are not immune from the number of complaints posted on the airport’s Twitter account and in other social media. The biggest problem seems to be in Terminal C.
“We apologize for the inconvenience, and we are aware of the shortcomings of our free, aging Wi-Fi,” airport spokesman Joe McBride said. “We are working to rectify the situation so they can surf the Internet freely and quickly at KCI in the future.”
To remedy this, the city’s Aviation Department will soon spend about $250,000 for a complete upgrade of the Wi-Fi service and other technical improvements.
KCI, with its three circular and easy-accessible terminals, began offering Wi-Fi about a decade ago. Overland Park-based Sprint Corp. agreed then to pay for and install the wiring and infrastructure needed for the Internet service. Customers were charged $9.99 for up to eight hours of Wi-Fi service.
The airport became among the first to offer Wi-Fi. In those early days, consumers weren’t weighed down with a lot of electronic gadgets. A traveler mostly likely carried a laptop and a cellular phone that didn’t need access the Internet.
The Wi-Fi capacity for the handful of uses during that time was adequate. There wasn’t a lot of stress placed on the system and the six digital hot spots sprinkled throughout each terminal, McBride said.
Years later, the agreement with Sprint expired and the Aviation Department opted to take over managing the Wi-Fi service. Free Wi-Fi was made available to travelers and visitors.
Since then, there have been some upgrades but not enough to keep up with the demands of the ever-changing consumer digital landscape. It was more of a Band-Aid approach, McBride said.
The horseshoe designs of the three terminals, thick glass and concrete walls and other infrastructure issues make it difficult and sometimes impossible for those with laptops, mobile phones or tablet computers to easily connect to the airport’s Wi-Fi, McBride acknowledged.
“Everybody has got a phone or two in their pockets, as well as a tablet and those are set on auto ping, so they are automatically hitting the Wi-Fi,” McBride said. “There is a good chance that they are taking up bandwidth, and the proliferation of so many devices hitting the Wi-Fi at any time puts a lot of stress on the system.”
Hoping to get some work done, Bill Grubb of San Diego never was able to connect to the Wi-Fi service while waiting in Terminal C before his flight took off one day last week.
“An airport with drive-up terminals is phenomenal, but trying to connect to the Wi-Fi wasn’t easy,” said Grubb, who was in Kansas City to handle a real estate matter.
Grubb said he called an airport information line to ask whether a password was needed to log in, but was rerouted several times. He gave up after finally being sent to someone’s voice mail.
Other travelers opt to bypass the free Wi-Fi service and turn their cellphones or laptops into personal Internet hot spots. But that can be costly on a traveler’s data plan, said Vincent Dobbins, who was returning to Newark, N.J, on Wednesday.
Another limitation: Even when Wi-Fi is available, it won’t allow those with time to kill to stream videos or music.
The Wi-Fi connection in Terminal B is usually readily accessible, said Stephanie Nowlin of Kansas City, who travels frequently for business.
“The service here is pretty good, but there are spots where it is not so good,” Nowlin said.
One day last week, a reporter found Wi-Fi reliable in Terminal B but could not connect anywhere in Terminal C.
The airport’s current equipment has the capacity to handle up to 500 users to connect to its free Wi-Fi in the two open terminals. The Internet hot spots are strategically located in columns throughout the terminals.
With the overhaul, the number of hot spots or access points will increase from roughly six per terminal to about 30. The increased capacity will enable more users to connect to the system. The amount of time users can surf the Internet will be limited, but they would only need to reconnect to the system to preserve bandwidth, said David Jacobus, the Aviation Department’s information technology director.
The upgrades will be funded from airport revenue, which is generated by concession sales, parking and other sources. The work is expected to be completed soon after the new year.
“We know people want to be connected these days, and we are stepping up to the plate to bring our system to today’s technology to meet those demands,” McBride said.