4G is faster than Wi-Fi, and now your offload model is broken

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ITEM: The days of Wi-Fi serving as a superior connectivity alternative to mobile broadband are drawing to a close, which means cellcos are going to have to rethink the role that Wi-Fi plays in their service offerings and network strategies.

That’s according to a new report from OpenSignal, which found that in 33 countries – or 41% of the countries it typically covers in its mobile broadband data speed research – average mobile data speeds are now faster than average Wi-Fi speeds.

opensignal Wi-Fi 4G broadband
Source: OpenSignal, State of Wifi vs Mobile Network Experience, November 2018

That’s when you include 3G connections. If you count only 4G, 50 countries (63%) now offer faster mobile broadband speeds on average over Wi-Fi.

opensignal Wi-Fi 4G broadband
Source: OpenSignal, State of Wifi vs Mobile Network Experience, November 2018

The results indicate how far mobile broadband has come in the last decade. When the iPhone made its appearance in mid-2007, it changed the mobile broadband game in more ways than one – it didn’t support 3G because Apple believed at the time (correctly) that Wi-Fi had the speed and capacity to deliver the optimum mobile data experience that 3G was supposed to deliver but didn’t. As smartphones took off, cellco networks were so overwhelmed by data traffic that Wi-Fi offload was the easiest way to mitigate congestion until 4G (which was first commercialized at the end of 2009) went mainstream.

Ten years later, says the OpenSignal report, that model is still more or less in play to the point that many users still spend more time on Wi-Fi connections than they do on mobile broadband, although this is in part because many smartphones still ship with Wi-Fi as the default automatic data connectivity option. Put another way, the report says, if more customers use Wi-Fi instead of mobile broadband, it’s not necessarily because they’re choosing to do so.

As for why cellular is outperforming Wi-Fi in speeds – since Wi-Fi has been evolving alongside mobile broadband in terms of data throughput capabilities – that’s partly to do with the quality of the fixed broadband link behind the Wi-Fi access point, but also to do with the fact that Wi-Fi’s own popularity means a higher likelihood of congestion – OpenSignal notes that in busy urban locations, “there can be ten to twenty active Wi-Fi networks all trying to use the same spectrum”. And that spectrum – which is unlicensed – tends to be limited to the 2.4 GHz band, since most smartphones don’t support 5 GHz Wi-Fi.

In any case, OpenSignal firmly expects this trend to continue as 4G becomes more prevalent and as 5G starts to come online over the next few years.

What this means for operators is that they’re going to have to rethink their Wi-Fi strategies, OpenSignal concludes.

Old Wi-Fi business models were based on the premise that that Wi-Fi would be a faster and more stable connection compared to mobile broadband. The OpenSignal report indicates that is increasingly no longer the case, and operators who offload their mobile customers to Wi-Fi risk handing them off to a worse connectivity experience – and today’s customers are more likely to notice the difference, especially if it results in buffering wheels.

Wi-Fi still has a role to play as an offload facilitator and a way to provide decent indoor coverage, OpenSignal says – but operators need to be aware that the balance is shifting in favor of cellular as the faster connection option, and plan their network strategies accordingly.

The full report is available here [PDF].

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