Travelers are so tethered to their smartphones, tablets, and laptops these days that they expect to get free, high-speed Wi-Fi when they get to the airport. But the speed, quality, and effectiveness can vary drastically, depending on the airport and sometimes, even the terminal.
The Truth about Wi-Fi
What most travelers don’t understand is that it costs airports millions of dollars to install and maintain their Wi-Fi infrastructure.
It’s a structure that not only supports travelers, but it also supports airline tenants, concessions, and the airport’s own operations. So it’s a constant challenge for airports to offer strong wireless systems that support the needs of passengers and operations.
A Wi-Fi Authority
Scott Ewalt is the vice president of product and customer experience for Boingo, one of the larger provider of airport Wi-Fi services. It was among the first companies to offer Wi-Fi in airports and has seen big changes in passengers’ data needs. “We’ve seen an expansion of consumers with an exponential increase in data consumption,” he said. “While it’s transformed how customers are connected, it has meant making infrastructure changes in venues to satisfy connectivity needs.”
Twelve years ago, only 2 percent of passengers were even paying for Wi-Fi access, and they were using it mainly to connect to do work,” said Ewalt.
“By 2007, more and more people were carrying Wi-Fi-enabled devices, which led to changed expectations and much more data consumption in airports.”
Of course, consumers expected Wi-Fi to be free in airports, said Ewalt. “That led to us adding free access with advertising, which lessened the financial burden on airports paying for Wi-Fi infrastructure,” he said.
“So now most airports offer the option of viewing an ad or downloading an app in exchange for Wi-Fi.”
Free vs. Paid Wi-Fi
Travelers can get a basic tier of service for free, said Ewalt. “They can also pay for a premium tier of Wi-Fi at faster speeds,” he said. Boingo’s version of this is Passpoint Secure, where customers can create a profile that provides automatic login to secure its networks, eliminating the need for login screens, web page redirects or apps with a fast connection on a WPA2 encrypted network.
Boingo understands that there is a growing demand for Wi-Fi access, said Ewalt. “We look ahead so we have expectations of what that will look like in three years, and make the adjustments to our network and infrastructure to support that growth,” he said.
Best and Worst Airport Wi-Fi
Internet testing and metrics company Speedtest by Ookla took a look at the best and worst Wi-Fi at the top 20 U.S. airports based on passenger boardings. The company looked at data at the four largest carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, along with airport-sponsored Wi-Fi at each location and based on data during the last three months of 2016.
The top five airports with the fastest upload/download speeds are Denver International, Philadelphia International, Seattle-Tacoma International, Dallas/Fort Worth International and Miami International.
At the bottom of Ookla’s list was Hartsfield-Jackson, followed by Orlando International, San Francisco International, Las Vegas’ McCarran International and Minneapolis-St. Paul International.
Oookla encouraged airports at the bottom of its survey to try and boost benchmark speeds rather than go for incremental increases. “Orlando International, in particular, could benefit from a large investment in Wi-Fi, because although they show the second highest percentage increase, the resulting average download speed still is not at all serviceable for anything beyond basic calls and texts,” said the study.
It also pointed out the airports where average Wi-Fi speeds decreased: Detroit Metropolitan, Charlotte Douglas, Boston-Logan, McCarran in Las Vegas, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Los Angeles International, Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare.
Whether their existing Wi-Fi systems are reaching their limits or something else went wrong, no one wants to see internet speeds decrease. “If Idaho Falls Regional Airport offers 100 Mbps Wi-Fi, and our tests show on average, users were achieving speeds of over 200 Mbps, there’s a path to Wi-Fi success for every airport.”
But it wasn’t all bad news. Ookla found that at 12 of the 20 busiest U.S. airports, Wi-Fi download speed increased between the third and fourth quarters of 2016. It noted that JFK airport for more than doubled its Wi-Fi download speed, while speeds in Denver and Philadelphia continued to improve because both facilities have invested significantly in their Wi-Fi. It also lauded Seattle-Tacoma for posting a strong improvement on an already above-average speed.
Below is a list of Wi-Fi available at the top 20 airports targeted in the Oookla report, along with details of where it’s available and how much it cost, where applicable.
Denver International Airport - free throughout the airport.
Philadelphia International Airport - available free in all terminals, provided by AT&T.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport - free access in all terminals.
Dallas/Ft Worth International Airport - the airport offers free Wi-Fi in all terminals, parking garages, and gate-accessible areas. Travelers must give their email to sign up for the airport’s email newsletter.
Miami International Airport - Access to websites for airlines, hotels, rental car companies, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, MIA and Miami-Dade County is now free through MIA's WiFi network portal. For other sites, the cost is $7.95 for 24 continuous hours or $4.95 for the first 30 minutes.
LaGuardia Airport - free for the first 30 minutes in all terminals; after that, it’s $7.95 a day or $21.95 a month via Boingo
Chicago O'Hare International Airport - travelers get free access for 30 minutes; paid access is available for $6.95 an hour $21.95 a month via Boingo.
Newark Liberty International Airport - free after watching a sponsored ad, via Boingo.
John F. Kennedy International Airport free after watching a sponsored ad, via Boingo.
Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport - free Wi-Fi in all terminal gate areas.
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport - free in all terminals via Boingo.
Los Angeles International Airport - traveler get free access for 45 minutes; paid access is available for $7.95 for 24 hours via Boingo.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport - free throughout the terminals, via Boingo.
Boston-Logan International Airport - free access throughout airport via Boingo.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport - free Wi-Fi is available in all terminals on both sides of security, in most retail and restaurant areas, near the gates, and in the lobby of the Rental Car Center, all offered by Boingo.
Minneapolis/St Paul International Airport - free in terminals for 45 minutes; after that, it costs $2.95 for 24 hours.
McCarran International Airport - free throughout all public areas.
San Francisco International Airport - free in all terminals.
Orlando International Airport -- free in all terminals.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport - the world’s busiest airport now has free Wi-Fi via its own network.