Why Is Airport 3G Coverage So Bad?

I spend a lot of my time in Australian airports, and that's led me to one simple conclusion: Mobile network coverage in these locations is really, really poor.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

There's certainly plenty of mobile phones in any Australian airport. At the security queue, there's barely a person who won't hand up a mobile before getting scanned. And that's quite understandable: Travelling is one of those scenarios where a mobile phone becomes even more useful than normal. In any event, the sheer number of mobiles in Australia pretty much dictates that most people inside an airport will have one.

As such, it's understandable that getting a signal in an airport might be difficult, up to a point. After all, you're competing with lots of other individuals. However, you're not in a location where it should be particularly difficult to add additional capacity if needed. After all, no one is going to complain about the aesthetic impact of more towers or equipment. Yes, there'll be a need to ensure no interference with operations, but given that we've just seen approval for on-plane mobile services, that's hardly an insurmountable barrier.

Given all those factors, I remain amazed at the sheer inadequacy of mobile signals in most Australian airports. This is particularly evident if you try and use a 3G mobile dongle to hook up your PC and do something while you wait for your plane. Despite the fact that advertisements for phone networks often feature all over the airport, when you try to connect up your signal will inevitably slow to a crawl.

My biggest nightmare location for this is actually the train stations at Sydney airport. Next G does OK, but both Optus and Vodafone struggle to get even a GPRS signal. No matter what device I'm using, time-outs become the norm, and the frustration level rises because I know there's doubtless a bunch of email and comments and RSS items to get through, and it's not like there's anything better to do while you're waiting around for a train.

Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of obvious alternatives. The Virgin and Qantas airport lounges offer free Wi-Fi, but that's not an option for everyone and can also be patchy in practice. The best solution is arguably in Adelaide, which has free airport-wide Wi-Fi courtesy of Internode. But I can't help thinking that as smart phones get ever more common, the mobile infrastructure at our airports is going to need some serious upgrading.

Got your own airport signal horror stories or tactics to get a better connection? Share them in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is always impatiently waiting for the "You can now switch your mobile phones on" announcement. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    And yet many Australian's regard Adelaide as one of the backwaters of this counrty? Go figure eh?

    You should be thankful that Queensland has mobile phone technology at all, if you ask me?

    Adelaide Airport; Oh Yeah!

    The free WiFi in Adelaide airport is incredible, you get decent speeds without having an account and eve better speeds if you are an Internode customer.

    Mobile service is also ok, with Vodafone, I get good coverage all over as well as good speeds.

    If you have a look at it, wherever senior business and political people go at the airport, wifi and 3G work.

      Not my experience - the free wi-fi in the Qantas business lounges on the east coast is often very slow.

    I always assumed it was a conspiracy to force me to use hideously overpriced wifi networks provided by the airlines...

    totally agree with this article.

    another area lacking in coverage? the city loop in melbourne.

    There's free wifi at Newcastle Airport and it's great.

    Yep Adelaide does it good. I have watched videos on a laptop via orb from my home pc whilst waiting for a flight with no problems.

    It's not just in the Airport. All 3G signals are very week to non-existent around airports. When I drive past Tullamarine, it's often like going into a black spot region.

    Is it possible that there may be interference from the towers that the airports want minimized to avoid disruption with the landing systems etc...?

    What incentive does any Australian monopolistic airport have to offer services that they can't outrageously profit from? Based on their other products (carparks, food, etc), they would probably try and charge telco's 50-400% more than is market rate, and the telco's say no thanks.

    The Jetstar end of Adelaide Airport is woeful for wi-fi. I've never got a good connection there yet.

    Telstra owns the network in the airport link tunnels (to and from syd airport by train) i have tested this myself with my iPad, i have an optus micro sim and a telstra micro sim and you guessed it, the telstra sim operates at phenomenal speed, the optus... forget it... dont even bother trying, the only thing i can guess is that telstra intentionally throttles back users of other networks, so while you're never actually out of signal, the speed you get blows goats...

    The three airports I've been to (Melbourne's Tullamarine, Geelong's Avalon and Sydney's Kingford-Smith) have been quite tolerable in terms of mobile reception. I'm a Vodafone customer, and usually get quite good reception in all those airports. Here are my findings:

    Melbourne - Calls drop out, but rarely (5/5 bars), Mobile internet 3 down/2 up :O

    Avalon - Calls drop out sometimes, (4/5 bars), Mobile internet 2 down/almost 1 up

    Sydney - Calls drop out half the time, (5/5 bars), Mobile internet 3 down/1 up

    In all three locations I can connect to Vodafone's new 850 network, that should be noted.

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