Airport Wi-Fi improving—gradually

Data shows airports are improving digital access and enabling travelers to get online

Airport Wi-Fi improving—gradually
Credit: Thinkstock

Airports are among the venues that are upping their game when it comes to Wi-Fi connectivity and improving user experience. 

And just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, Rotten WiFi has released its annual list of the top 20 global airports. 

“Data clearly shows that situation is gradually changing,” the self-described Wi-Fi watchdog says on its website, “with airports improving their digital access and enabling customers to get online.” The United States and Thailand lead. 

The numbers sound good for this holiday. For download speeds, you should expect 42.17 Mbps average speeds at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Arkansas—the number one airport worldwide for internet speed. Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport does well at 33.53 Mbps, and Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport has 32.22 Mbps. 

All of the other U.S. airports’ numbers came in below 30 Mbps. Even the number 10 position for the U.S. (Indianapolis International) came in at a 9.38 Mbps, so kind of usable. None of them, however, reached at-home speeds. I get at about 70 Mbps at my place in in suburban Los Angeles. 

Demand for Wi-Fi increases 

Demand for Wi-Fi is driving the improvements in public places, as people say getting connected is more important than most things in their lives. According to a recent study by Wi-Fi network provider iPass, 40 percent of respondents say Wi-Fi is indispensable. It’s “their number one daily essential,” iPass said. 

In fact, respondents said Wi-Fi is a higher priority than sex (37 percent), chocolate (14 percent) and alcohol (9 percent). Almost three-quarters (70 percent) said it has improved their quality of life. 

“We all want Wi-Fi first because of faster speeds, lower prices and the better user experience it affords,” Patricia Hume, chief commercial officer at iPass, said in the company’s press release. 

Wi-Fi faster than LTE

Open Signal, a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) measurement website, appears to corroborate iPass’s claim that people could be choosing Wi-Fi over LTE because of now “faster speeds.” Open Signal’s most recent comparison of 4G (LTE) average download speeds conducted in February places T-Mobile in the top U.S. spot at a measly 12.26 Mbps, Verizon came in second at 11.98 Mbps. 

Failing miserably in speed performance was AT&T with 7.93 Mbps and Sprint with 6.56 Mbps on average. 

To be fair to the MNOs, who provide service over large geographic areas as opposed to the airports’ manageable acreage, some MNOs did better than the LTE-average in spots. Notably Verizon did well in Miami at 18.9 Mbps. 

“The U.S. is falling far behind globally in LTE speed,” Open Signal wrote on its website in February, “as many other countries start providing consistent 20 Mbps or greater connections.” 

The U.S. LTE average is 9.9 Mbps, Open Signal said at the time.

It makes sense, then, that 63 percent of iPass’ 1,700 respondents said they’d rather use Wi-Fi hotspots than mobile data. 

Speeds may be a red herring, though. For many, cost is a more important factor. In the iPass survey, of those who chose Wi-Fi over mobile data services, 42 percent said cost is the deciding factor. Only 27 percent said speed was the deciding factor.

It’s been a slow time coming, but we’re gradually seeing Wi-Fi improvements. At the end of 2014, I discovered a hotel chain had finally gotten around to asking guests what they thought about the hotel’s Wi-Fi. The four-star chain found Wi-Fi was the most important factor in hotel choice—more important that a good night’s sleep and the hotel’s location. That was a surprise to the hotel, but not to road warriors.

Two years later, and we are hearing people utter “The Wi-Fi sucks” less and less.

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