U.S. Airports With the Best Wi-Fi and Cellular Speeds

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Not many travelers think about airport internet connection speeds when they book tickets for air travel. Maybe you should, though, especially when you’re traveling for work or flying with restless children. When you’re grounded for endless hours between flights, a robust download speed can make all the difference in your productivity — or your sanity.

Ookla, maker of tools that measure internet performance and network diagnostics, assessed the upload and download speeds at airports recently. The company found a vast range, especially when it came to download speeds.

Using its Speedtest instrument, the company clocked download and upload speeds at the 20 U.S. airports with the most passenger traffic. It gauged speeds both of airport-sponsored WiFi networks and of four major mobile carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

Wi-Fi winners

Download speeds told the story when Ookla studied the Wi-Fi connections.

  • The worst: The slowest download speeds were at Atlanta (ATL) (“dismal,” Ookla called them): 2.71 Mbps (megabits per second) on average.
  • The best: The fastest download speeds were at Denver (DEN): 61.74 Mbps on average.

Ookla declined to share its Speedtest results used in ranking the airports. But you can get a rough idea from charts in the link above. The top 10 airports, ranked by Wi-Fi download speeds, are:

  1. Denver (DEN)
  2. Philadelphia (PHL)
  3. Seattle-Tacoma (SEA)
  4. Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)
  5. Miami (MIA)
  6. LaGuardia (LGA)
  7. Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
  8. Newark Liberty (EWR)
  9. John F. Kennedy (JFK)
  10. George Bush, Houston (IAH)

If your favorite airport failed to score high, take heart. Airport Wi-Fi speeds, with some notable exceptions, keep improving. “Wi-Fi gets upgraded and carriers are regularly rolling out new technology and capacity at U.S. airports,” Ookla says.

Cellular trumps Wi-Fi, sometimes

In some airports, Wi-Fi is faster than mobile. But in others, cellular reigns.

Cellular download speeds also varied a good deal from airport to airport, Ookla says. The average download speed among all airports was LaGuardia’s 7.25 Mbps. Not awful but it does look bad compared with the U.S. average cellular download speed of 21.77 Mbps — and 8.54 Mbps for uploads.

Would you notice the difference in experience between an airport with fast download speeds versus one with slow speeds? You bet you would. Says Ookla:

If you’re connecting via cellular signal, the difference between the average download speed of 7.25 Mbps at LaGuardia and Detroit’s 45.79 Mbps is the difference between kinda sorta getting through the latest episode of “Westworld” on your phone and enjoying the full HD video experience on your tablet.

Here are the top 10 airports for cellular speed, ranked by the speed of downloads:

  1. Detroit Metropolitan (DTW)
  2. San Francisco (SFO)
  3. Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP)
  4. Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
  5. Orlando (MCO)
  6. Seattle-Tacoma (SEA)
  7. Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
  8. McCarran, Las Vegas (LAS)
  9. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (ATL)
  10. George Bush, Houston (IAH)

With cellular uploads, unlike with Wi-Fi uploads, speeds did not differ vastly among airports, and Wi-Fi upload speeds beat download speeds at just seven of the 20 airports.

Cellular vs. Wi-Fi: No clear winner

You’re no doubt wondering: Which is faster at airports, Wi-Fi or cellular? Alas, there’s no simple answer.

In Denver, LaGuardia and Philadelphia, Wi-Fi beat cellular speeds by 3-to-1 or more. Wi-Fi was faster in Seattle and Miami, too.

Cellular and Wi-Fi were neck-and-neck in Newark, Charlotte Douglas (North Carolina) and JFK.

Cell service was the best choice in Orlando, San Francisco, McCarran (Nevada) and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The speediest mobile service at airports

Analysts also ranked the four mobile carriers for speed. The result:

  • Verizon came out on top in nine of the 20 airports.
  • AT&T was a very close second: tops in eight airports and tied with Verizon in one other airport.
  • Sprint and T-Mobile split the honors in the last two airports, and beat out the competition in one airport each.

How can you take advantage of this information when making travel plans? Check Ookla’s charts in the article at the link above, especially for Wi-Fi speeds. The charts also show at which airports cellular service excels, at least in the last quarter of 2016, when the test was done.

If Wi-Fi is the best bet for you, here’s a tool for finding passwords for airports’ public networks. WiFox mobile app ($1.99 at the Apple App store, Google Play and Amazon) uses a map to display Wi-Fi passwords for airports and lounges around the world. (Here’s the browser version.) The app was created by travel blogger Anil Polat, whose users update it by contributing new passwords as they travel.

What has been your experience trying to use your digital devices while traveling? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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