The WiFi is really flying at our Philly airport

File photo: A tavern in the F terminal of Philadelphia International Airport ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / staff photographer )

If you have to be stuck at the gate for a few hours, the exceedingly  good  public WiFi at Philadelphia International Airport will at least help you chill out and get things done -- better than at most major airports in the nation.

In new findings by the Seattle-based  Speedtest by Ookla tracking service, the free WiFi available in all Philadelphia terminals ranked second in speed/robustness among the 20 U.S. airports with the most passenger boardings, surpassed only by Denver. With an average download speed of almost 50 megabits per second and an upload speed actually surpassing 50Mbs, airport guests can easily juggle multiple mobile devices at once, move  dense documents with high-res graphics and photos. And streaming  the latest episode of  Westworld  in high def (or even ultra high def)  should be butter smooth, said Ookla content manager Isla McKetta. 

Philly also is blessed with the first-ever airport installation of five Xfinity-on-the-Fly lounges, a hometown perk from Comcast that encourages its customers to download TV shows, movies, and DVR-captured content. While Ookla did not include tests of this alternative network in its ratings, the Xfinity WiFi option would have easily have claimed best-in-class status, with an average download speed of 101.37  Mbps. “You can download a complete season of a TV series in just a matter of minutes. It’s remarkable,” said Jim Tyrrell, chief revenue officer for the Philadelphia airport.

 (Anyone can readily verify  the Ookla findings just by downloading the free Speedtest app onto a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.)

While there isn’t much signage around the airport alerting customers to the free WiFi,  this competitive advantage  for PHL “is on our website and we make public address announcements,” said Tyrrell. “And when you open your device you get an automatic prompt to sign on to the free airport WiFi.”

 AT&T supplies the service and updated the network 18 months ago, in return for the opportunity to foist a 60-second commercial on users “before they sign on.” “AT&T tells us it’s the second-best WiFi system they have anywhere, second only to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport in their hometown,” said Tyrrell.

Ookla confirms  DFW’s top ranking in upload speeds, but found it actually scored slower than Philadelphia in downloads.  And while some security experts make general warnings  about the risks of using public hot spots, Tyrrell said, “AT&T is very good. Privacy breaches have not been an issue here. We’ve never heard any complaints.”

Conventional wisdom holds that a mobile phone’s networking speeds are faster than WiFi.  Ookla found the opposite, noted McKetta. WiFi at Philadelphia International Airport and at LaGuardia in New York cranked “more than three times faster than their average cell download speed, and in Miami and Seattle, WiFi is nearly twice as fast as cell."

AT&T scored tops in cellphone connectivity in Philadelphia – but ranked a mere 15th among the top 20 locations studied - with average speeds of 15 Mbps down, 10 Mbps up. Philadelphia’s second-place mobile provider, Verizon Wireless, rated sixth in the “most improved carrier by airport” category, calculated Ookla.  But ask again later, said Tyrrell:  “We’ve just completed an agreement for Verizon to put in a DOS – distributed antenna system  - that will significantly improve their cell signals throughout  the terminals.”  

Eighty-six thousand passengers fly through Philadelphia International Airport every day.  While layover times “have actually gotten shorter, TSA tells everybody flying out of Philly to arrive at least  two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. So those are the people you have to design systems for and keep entertained,” Tyrrell said.

Philadelphia International concessionaire OTG’s planned installation of  1,300 “smart seats” fitted with individual iPads, free-connectivity and seat-side food and beverage service  in American Airlines’ Terminal B also will be coming to the collective rescue of this captive audience.