If major airports had fast Wi-Fi networks that didn’t slow to a crawl at peak hours, travelers wouldn’t have to worry about how their cellular data connections provided by wireless carriers work at those locations. However, airport Wi-Fi is often spotty, and a 4G LTE signal can be your best option when you’re about to board a flight or head for the baggage claim.
People who travel rarely might not care about the quality of cellular data connections in airports. On the other hand, if you travel a lot, a new report by RootMetrics that identifies the wireless carriers with the best network connectivity at each of the 50 largest airports in the United States is worth a look.
RootMetrics, a Seattle-based company that performs real-world tests of wireless devices in various locations, spent a full day at each airport, measuring performance in lobbies, gate areas and baggage claims while using off-the-shelf smartphones.
The company found that Verizon, the largest carrier, had the best overall performance in the 50 airports, followed by T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint. The five airports with the best overall data connectivity (RootMetrics did not test voice call performance) were Memphis International, Pittsburg International, O’Hare International, Southwest Florida International and Dallas Love Field. The worst? San Diego International.
Despite the heavy concentration of tech-savvy passengers in Silicon Valley, the area’s two airports — San Francisco International and Mineta San Jose International — were ranked forty-fifth and thirty-firstrespectively.
In overall testing, Verizon was far ahead of the pack, T-Mobile was a strong second, followed by AT&T, and then Sprint at a distant fourth. “Verizon’s airport wins were fueled by excellent reliability and speed,” according to RootMetrics.
T-Mobile’s solid airport performance is somewhat surprising, because it ranked at the bottom in RootMetrics’ recent national performance tests, which were released last month. I asked RootMetrics CEO Bill Moore about the apparent discrepancy, and he said his company tests performance in metropolitan, suburban and rural areas. On average, T-Mobile, which has the smallest network of the four major U.S. carriers, doesn’t perform as well as its competitors. The carrier does quite well, however, in densely populated metro areas, where most of the major airports are located.
Sprint is at the bottom of the list. RootMetrics awarded it a top score at only one airport (Chicago’s O’Hare), compared to 31 top scores for Verizon, 17 for T-Mobile, and 10 for AT&T. Sprint managed a median download speed of 20 Mbps at just one airport.
Other highlights of the report:
The busiest U.S. airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, earned the No. 7 spot for mobile performance while Chicago’s super busy O’Hare ranked third, which shows carriers can deliver optimal performance in very crowded environments.
Verizon had the fastest airport median download speed, 101.2 Mbps, at Chicago’s Midway International Airport.
T-Mobile received high ratings for reliability. RootMetrics testers were able to connect to the Web via T-Mobile’s networks and then successfully complete a task using an app at 47 of the 50 airports included in the survey. However, users of both Verizon and AT&T were more likely to connect to the Web before attempting to use an app.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.