A load off their minds

12 AUG 2014

NEW BLOG: The latest edition of the 4GEE Mobile Living Index – a survey by the UK operator of the usage habits of its user base – talked up how its subscribers are deserting public Wi-Fi.

Actually the operator has flagged up this phenomenon regularly in previous surveys. What’s different is that the trend is becoming more pronounced, according to EE.

Apart from a plateauing between August and November last year, the direction of travel has been clear – the percentage of 4G subs using fewer or no public Wi-Fi hotspots has risen strongly from 35-40 per cent in April 2013 to 54 per cent at the end of July 2014.

The same is true of fixed broadband where the percentage of EE customers reducing, or even completely dropping, their home connections has risen from just over 20 per cent to 30 per cent.

For EE the reason for the rise in Wi-Fi opt-out is clear. The operator has invested heavily – and told us repeatedly – about the extent of its rural coverage. It is now present in 2,588 villages and small towns and counting, according to the latest version of its index.

Network coverage is a key dividing line that EE has chosen to draw with rivals Vodafone and O2.

EE suggests that subscribers in those locations – areas which are more likely to have sluggish home broadband and scarce or slower public Wi-Fi – are converts to solo 4G use.

Mind you, not everyone is buying the long-term decline of Wi-Fi. Earlier this year, a survey by mobile analytics firm Mobidia said that Wi-Fi accounted for a whacking 75-90 per cent of all mobile data consumed in a selection of 4G markets.

The firm said it sampled the behaviour of “hundreds of thousands” of Android smartphone and tablet users over the first four months of 2014. Brazil, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Russia, South Africa, UK and the US were among the markets covered.

Mobidia’s figure for the UK in particular show that while EE recorded a slight increase in 4G data usage on a per-user basis in the year to May 2014, it’s nowhere close to the increase in Wi-Fi usage among its users.

For its part, EE now has a base of more than four million 4G subscribers whose data it can chew on.

Of course, there is a question of how it can monitor data usage when a subscriber is not logged on via its app or one of its own Wi-Fi hotspots. If, for instance, a user logs onto a Wi-Fi hotspot in a coffee shop then the operator is not going to know.

The solution to filling in that part of the usage story is a user survey, the operator says. EE’s own data is supplemented by an independent survey of 1,000 users, although that is likely to deliver more anecdotal and less scientific input.

Turning to the Mobidia figures, EE argues the trend for users turning away from public Wi-Fi in favour of 4G does not necessarily contradict the view that most data consumption is on Wi-Fi. For EE, the crucial point is that a viable alternative to Wi-Fi now exists for many users.

But is a shift in usage patterns away from Wi-Fi irrevocable? Claus Hetting, CEO of Wi-Fi specialist Hetting Consulting, argues probably not.

“It’s true in the change from 3G to 4G there is a period of time that people find 4G more attractive than Wi-Fi but once everyone has moved across to it then they will go back to using Wi-Fi. It’s a question of where the available capacity is.”

According to this theory, operators such as EE and their initial wave of 4G subscribers are currently on their honeymoons. In time, the rest of us will catch up and the 4G network will become congested.

Which is why operators have happily embraced Wi-Fi offload in the past, rather than viewed it as a rival technology. From the operator’s perspective, it has been a pragmatic marriage, born of the need to keep up with users’ growing data demands. On the other hand, an operator with a new – and empty – 4G network can take a purer approach, at least for the moment.

For its part, EE points out that it has more spectrum than any other operator in the UK, and is confident of maintaining the current level of customer experience.

“We don’t need Wi-Fi offload in the same way that many operators do, and it’s no surprise with the often poor quality of public Wi-Fi that customers would look to stick on 4G,” said a company spokesman. That’s fighting talk and an approach that will undergo a thorough examination, not least from users, in coming years.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.

Author

Richard Handford

Richard is the editor of Mobile World Live’s money channel and a contributor to the daily news service. He is an experienced technology and business journalist who previously worked as a freelancer for many publications over the last decade including...

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