Cell service at US airports varies from first class to middle-seat coach

Tests by RootMetrics found coverage is improving but inconsistent

United Airlines jets at San Francisco International Airport on May 21, 2015

United Airlines jets at San Francisco International Airport on May 21, 2015

Need something to watch on a flight? You can download an episode of your favorite show in less than a minute and a half on Verizon Wireless at Atlanta's airport -- or spend 13 hours doing the same over T-Mobile USA at Los Angeles International.

The comparison of 45-minute HD video downloads illustrates the wide variation in cellular service at U.S. airports, which RootMetrics laid out in a report for the first half of 2015 that's being issued Thursday. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson is the best place to go mobile and Verizon covers airports best overall, but just like security lines and de-icing delays, it all depends.

RootMetrics tested mobile data connections using all four major carriers at the 50 busiest airports in the country, checking not just for speed but for how long it took to get on and how well the connection stayed up. The tests took place in well-used places like ticketing, baggage claim and terminal gates. RootMetrics didn't test voice service or Wi-Fi networks.

The results showed you can pretty much count in getting online with your mobile operator at any major airport, and speed and reliability are getting better. But whether that means watching Netflix during a layover or only checking email will depend on a lot of things. Airports pack a lot of mobile users together and aren't the easiest places to cover with wireless, due to dense building materials and limited antenna locations.

Verizon beat out other carriers for user experience at 29 airports, followed by T-Mobile at 20. AT&T won at 13 airports, while Sprint wasn't the best carrier at any. In some places, two or more carriers were tied.

Verizon notched the highest performance at any airport, a whopping 68.8Mbps (bits per second) downstream and 40.4Mbps upstream at Chicago's O'Hare. And RootMetrics rated Verizon's reliability as nearly perfect, saying testers got connected to the network 97 percent of the time at 49 of the airports tested.

Sprint lagged behind the others in speed, never surpassing 15Mbps downstream or 10Mbps upstream, RootMetrics said, though its reliability was much improved from earlier tests. AT&T has also improved its reliability but came in at the middle of the pack in speed.

Behind Atlanta, the rest of the top five airports were Cleveland Hopkins, Southwest Florida in Fort Myers, San Jose, and Dallas Love Field. Nashville International came in dead last of the 50 busiest airports, followed by San Diego, Los Angeles International and Honolulu, where you may not want to get that email from your boss anyway.

Most travelers can't choose their destinations as easily as they can their mobile operators, but mobile ratings might help if you have a choice of airports serving the same region. For example, John Wayne-Orange County airport south of Los Angeles rates far higher than LAX, at number 18 versus 48. Around New York City, Newark ranked best in 13th place, followed by JFK at 21 and LaGuardia at 38.

On the other hand, cellular service is just one factor among many in choosing an airport. If staying connected virtually is so important that you choose a 30-mile trek from downtown Washington, D.C., to Dulles (ranked 7th) over the five miles to Reagan National (ranked 43rd), maybe it's time to put down the Clash of Clans.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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