February’s OpenSignal report ranks coverage and capacity across many countries. It included several surprises alongside general trends although doesn’t tell the whole story. We dig deeper for some insights.
Measuring cellular service at the point of delivery
In recent years, a popular method of measuring what service users are receiving is to download an App that monitors connections in the background. This can include both cellular and Wi-Fi access, tracking which Apps use each, how much and when.
Some of these Apps are completely independent, with OpenSignal being a popular one. Others are embedded within operator own branded Apps, such as those mainly used for accessing billing information. Some are directly used by consumers, such as SpeedTest by Ookla pictured above.
While operators still make use of traditional methods such as drive/walk testing, network performance analysis and predictive RF modelling, it’s hard to argue that what each smartphone sees isn’t representative of the service delivered.
OpenSignal’s State of LTE Report 2018
OpenSignal has become a well respected source of cellular performance and their latest report provides comprehensive information.
Their general insight is that peak data speeds have not risen over the past year, getting close but not surpassing 50Mbps. Instead, 4G coverage has improved substantially with users spending more time connected to LTE than ever before.
This graph maps speed against coverage for each country.
Countries including South Korea, Singapore, Netherlands and Norway all benefit from both high speeds and availability. India now has good coverage (86%) but lacks capacity to meet demand.
In the US, the impact of unlimited data plans resulted in a big hit on speeds. They’ve recovered from 14 to 16.3Mbps in the past three months but still lag behind other countries.
Statistica forecast that average mobile wireless data usage per user has grown from 1.9GBytes to 11.3Gbytes/month between 2014 and 2019. This contrasts with 0.6Gbytes to 4.3Gbytes as a global average – so a typical US consumer uses 3x the capacity of elsewhere. GlobalData reports that Finland tops European consumption at 13.3GB/month with many much lower usage countries including Germany at less than 1GB. The UK Averages 2GB but this has been diluted due to the exponential number of low data-intensive Machine-to-Machine SIM cards.
OpenSignal believe that faster speeds above 50Mbps will be enabled by some of the latest LTE Advance Pro features. I could see that LAA would provide a substantial boost in urban areas. Whether these higher speeds will lead to greater profits remains to be seen. It’s more important that users can continue to enjoy their regular services, such as streaming video, low latency lookups for local information, maps etc. Speed inevitably adds capacity but is not the only answer.
This growth inevitably requires more densification, through outdoor small cells and inbuilding systems. Faster speeds may also require newer handsets – just because the network can support higher speeds doesn’t immediately mean that smartphones can make use of them. The peak speeds already on offer of several hundred Mbps only work with the very latest and most advanced LTE devices.
It was also notable that the average LTE speed continues to outperform Wi-Fi (by 16.9Mbps to 14Mbps). That’s probably due to limits in the backhaul/home broadband used to connect the Wi-Fi access points rather than the radio technology itself. However many users actively switch to Wi-Fi when at home because the LTE performance is poor, and this active choice doesn’t show up in the overall report results.
What’s this data being used for?
The UK agency for communications (Ofcom) publish an extensive report each year. Their 2017 Communications Market Report also covers TV, Radio and Internet usage as well as fixed and mobile communications.
It identifies behavioural changes, such as how much catch-up/offline TV we watch, and how families now often sit in the same room but watching different programs. We like the freedom of choice that the Internet has given us, but recognise that sometimes this is at the expense of sharing the experience of watching together.
Cellular revenues remained flat despite the considerable increase in data volumes. Traditional messaging services (SMS) continue to decline in favour of social messaging Apps (WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger). A growing percentage of users are buying SIM-only post-pay deals, reducing the average contract length below 12 months.
Ofcom also worked with P3, installing an App on many users’ smartphones to determine the consumer experience. When using Apps, users are connected through Wi-Fi 69% of the time. There is some discrepancy with the OpenSignal results in that connection speeds using YouTube and Chrome are faster over Wi-Fi than 4G. Nonetheless, over 95% of data downloads are successful over 4G.
M2M (Machine to Machine) sees the most dramatic growth, up 14% year-on-year, while dedicated data dongles are on the way out – we tend to use Wi-Fi or tethering to smartphones to connect our laptops on the move.
LTE networks are continuing to evolve, improving coverage and capacity rather than peak speed. This is generally giving good service to users. A few elite countries satisfy both coverage and peak speeds while many others offer respectable speeds in most places.
Unlimited tariff plans have made a big dent in the performance of US networks, which trail behind in speeds but do deliver 3x the payload per user compared to global trends. As you would expect, some countries with higher data prices have lower takeup.
Overall, the background is that mobile operators revenues are fairly static despite delivering ever growing amounts of capacity and speed to their customers.
The next step will be further densification and more in-building coverage, which could be funded by building owners/companies themselves if suitable commercial arrangements can be agreed. Whether we really need faster speeds or not remains to be seen – if customers are willing to pay more for those, then that would be a primary driver.