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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Catching up - China and Heathrow Terminal 5

I haven't posted this week because I've been behind the Great Firewall of China, at ZTE's analyst conference (more on that company in a later post). While there seems to be a bit more flexibility in net non-neutrality from that part of the world these days (Skype & Yahoo Messaging, plus BBC News' website was fine, so no problems reading about events in Tibet), I couldn't access Blogger, or other blogs hosted on TypePad or Wordpress. Definitely another "ah hah" moment when I realised what was happening.

By coincidence, the trip meant that I was able to score a seat on this morning's inaugural flight BA26, from Hong Kong into Heathrow's gleaming new Terminal 5. As well as being another temple to architecture deity Richard Rogers, it also features a comprehensive WLAN infrastructure from Aruba. Apparently, as well as being used for baggage handling (which from my perspective seemed to work a lot more efficiently than other bits of LHR) airport operator BAA "acts as a service provider to .... multiple hotspot Internet service providers."

Unfortunately though, I had just flown in from Hong Kong's Chep Lak Kok airport, which is a similarly-impressive edifice (courtesy of Norman Foster) but conspicuously offers 24-hr free WiFi, courtesy of PCCW throughout. (Free WiFi at the hotel in Shenzhen, too).

That Heathrow T5 attempts to perpetuate the overpriced European WiFi paid-hotspot market, rather than looking at how to provide passengers with free access as a utility doesn't surprise me in the least. It's run by BAA, the rapacious mall operator best-known for forcing its customers through endless rows of shops, viewing the flights themselves as inconveniences that limit the 'retail experience'.

It's also been advised in wireless strategy by consulting and engineering firm Red-M. The system enables it to set & monitor policies about exactly what wireless coverage is available where. I imagine they've been able to extract similar rents from the hotspot & cellular guys as they do from ordinary retail stores.

And I noticed that I couldn't get a signal for Hutchison 3G, or 3G on my O2 phone, down in the Heathrow Express train station. Wouldn't want 3G modems to compete with the presumably lucrative contract offered to T-Mobile to run WiFi there, would they? Will be interesting to see how good 3G coverage is on each operator in the rest of the building - I'd guess that some operators were prepared to stump up the requisite cash and others weren't. Expensive-looking Vodafone 3G modem adverts adorn the arrival hall, so I guess that Big Red's network will be fine.

Put simply, this is another example of the danger of giving network policy tools to organisations whose policies are questionable. It wouldn't surprise me if BAA took a leaf out of China's book and also invested in some firewalling policy-management gear as well, and started to limit what websites or IP services are accessible via the WiFi.

So let me know if you manage to read this blog from T5's departure lounge, or whether I've been network-blacklisted for daring to make a negative comment about the BAA regime....

(Sidenote - British Airways gave passengers on my flight into T5 a small gift to commemorate the opening. Bizarrely, it's a wireless computer mouse, of the type not usually permitted for use onboard planes.)

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