Despite interference concerns, 5G already offers a better user experience at the busiest US airports

The rollout of 5G services around U.S. airports has sparked concerns in the aeronautical industry about 5G technology interfering with altimeter equipment. As a result, AT&T and Verizon have delayed deployments of their 5G infrastructure in the C-band close to airports until July 2023. Opensignal has previously analyzed public Wifi and found the Wifi experience to be inferior to cellular services because of the congestion typical on unlicensed spectrum in busy locations such as airports. Cellular services avoid these issues. With the 5G airport debate in mind, Opensignal looked at the mobile network experience of our users at the 25 busiest airports in the U.S. based on FAA reports, and compared that to national results, to see how users’ 5G mobile experience differed.

At the country’s busiest airports Opensignal users enjoyed faster overall cellular download speeds and an overall better video streaming experience — compared to the national average — but the differences were smaller on 5G networks. Users also connected to 5G services for a considerably larger amount of time. However, users also spent more time without a cellular signal at airports.

The overall average download speed of 51 Mbps our users experienced at the busiest airports was 32% faster than the U.S. national average. However, the relative difference was much lower on 5G services. Nationally, our users saw an increase in speeds of 3.1 times with 5G, but only a 2.5 times improvement with 5G at the airports.

Consequently, airport users experienced only 7.8% faster average 5G download speeds (129.1 Mbps) compared with the national average (119.8 Mbps). While higher, 5G should be offering an even better airport experience compared with a national average that includes many suburban and even rural areas. This small difference between national and airport 5G download speeds is likely at least partly because of challenges carriers have faced with C-band deployments near airports and industry concerns over potential interference with aeronautical equipment. 

We also looked at Video Experience — given how important using video streaming services are for passengers who spend many hours at airports. At the 25 busiest airports in the U.S., our users enjoyed a slightly better overall experience when streaming video than the national average by 2.5 points on a 100-point scale. This score placed the airport experience in a higher category, Good (55-65), than the national experience of all of our American users, which rated as Fair (40-55). However, the difference was statistically insignificant for 5G Video Experience — and in both cases, the video streaming experience placed in the Very Good (65-75) category.

Looking at the average overall download speeds across individual airports, our users enjoyed the fastest speeds at LaGuardia, Salt Lake City and Tampa airports, where we saw statistically tied results in the 73.1-79.4 Mbps range. These were also the only airports where we saw the average download speed exceed the 70 Mbps milestone. We observed a further five airports — Los Angeles, Detroit Metro, JFK, Boston Logan and Philadelphia — with average overall download speeds clocking in at over 60 Mbps.

Most of the airports saw a substantial uplift with 5G. Users’ average download speeds were around 2-3 times faster using 5G for the majority of the airports compared to overall download speeds. Chicago O'Hare airport saw the most significant improvement of 3.3 times — followed by Seattle-Tahoma, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City airports, all of which saw uplifts of around threefold. On the other hand, the speed boosts with 5G were less impressive at some airports like Newark Liberty where users’ download speeds were only 33.4% faster — from 50.1 to 66.8 Mbps — than the overall speeds experienced. 

Network availability is also critical to understanding users’ mobile network experience. Airport users connected to 5G services for more than a third of the time, compared to a quarter of the time experienced by our users in the U.S. in general.

Even more significantly our users remained without any cellular signal for 5.7% of the time or 6.5 times more time spent without service at airports compared to the average score for all of our U.S. users of 0.9%. This big disparity is not surprising, given the nature of airport infrastructure — large area sizes, secluded or distant spots, and in-building walls that are hard for mobile signals to penetrate. Carriers can improve cellular service at airports using tools such as distributed antenna systems (DAS) which can improve indoor coverage while emitting relatively low power levels.

We saw the highest, statistically tied 5G Availability scores at Miami, San Diego, LaGuardia, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Philadelphia airports. Our 5G users at these airports had an active 5G connection between 39.2% and 42.7% of the time. Orlando International lagged behind, with our users connected to 5G for only 22% of the time. This makes it the only airport among the busiest 25 with a result below the national average 5G Availability score (25.2%).

Our users spent the most time with no signal at Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver international airports — with statistically tied scores of 9.2% and 8.7% of the time, respectively. LaGuardia and San Diego airports had the lowest scores of time with no signal in the observed group, in the 2.2-2.7% range. However, their results were still substantially higher than the 0.9% national average.

Future C-band rollouts around airports will boost 5G speeds

Fast and reliable mobile connectivity at airports is essential for passengers but also for airports’ and airlines’ staff. Opensignal’s analysis shows that there’s room for improvement with 5G download speeds and time in areas with no cellular signal. If airports and cellular carriers are able to deploy more 5G cells to target in-building and outdoor dead zones then users’ airport experience will greatly improve. 

As we previously observed in one of our insights, C-band is a gamechanger for the mobile network experience with 5G. Once U.S. carriers are able to proceed with the upcoming deployments in this band, this should greatly boost 5G download speeds and make connectivity at airports even better than the already good experience seen with 5G now.