Telcos aren’t the only ones to blame for poor mobile experience

We’ve all experienced this frustration. Maybe its ordering an Uber, downloading a document or doing online banking, only for poor performance to be the buzzkill. But what if the telcos aren’t to blame?

When you are down the pub and jealously looking over at the streaming power your mate’s device can conjure, the first question is always the same; who is your contract provider? This usually leads to a moan about one telco being terrible, but they are cheaper, so it’s not the end of the world. Now, some telcos are certainly better at delivering performance than others, but it is not the only factor which should be considered.

This is not to say the telcos are completely blameless, farmers will back you up here, but a new report from Openreach suggests there is quite a notable variance between the performance of each of the device manufacturers when the smartphones are out in the wild.

“All smartphones are not created equal,” Ian Fogg, Opensignal’s VP of Analysis, wrote in the report. “Just as different smartphones offer a variety of camera qualities or screen sizes, they also differ in the network communication features which enable faster download speeds and smoother video streaming.”

Using 117.8 billion measurements from 23.3 million devices between April 1 and June 30 , Opensignal has produced a critique of the top three smartphone manufacturers across a broad range of different nations.

The table below is only a snippet of the research, but it paints an interesting picture:

Country Samsung Apple Huawei
Norway 58 Mbps 44 Mbps 46 Mbps
Switzerland 44 Mbps 45 Mbps 38 Mbps
UAE 32 Mbps 47 Mbps 27 Mbps
UK 25 Mbps 20 Mbps 25 Mbps
USA 28 Mbps 20 Mbps 17 Mbps
Spain 29 Mbps 26 Mbps 26 Mbps
South Africa 19 Mbps 18 Mbps 16 Mbps
India 9 Mbps 7 Mbps 9 Mbps

Across the 40 countries which were included in the research, Samsung’s devices were the fastest on average in 14 of the countries, Apple was fastest in 7. In the remaining 21, there was a tie for the fastest average device speed. Huawei was not a standalone winner anywhere, though it was joint fastest in 7.

Interestingly enough, in some of the markets where Apple is the leader in terms of market share, it is not the best performing provider. In the US, Samsung lead the way in terms of average download speeds by quite a margin, and it also fell in second place in Japan. Australia is another market where the iLeader came up short.

As mentioned before, the telcos are not innocent when it comes to poor performance. Congestion on individual mobile sites, network architecture, line of sight and numerous other factors slow download speeds, but we suspect few people will blame their devices. Another interesting factor is the amount which has been spent on the device in the first place.

Opensignal Device Grpahic

As you can see from the graphic above, the difference between high-, mid- and low-end devices is very notable. Many will accept there are differences between the different tiers of devices will offer different performance when they actually think about it, however, the cynic in all of us will simply believe the manufacturers are attempting to bleed as much cash out of customers for additional bells and whistles.

The difference between the tiers is down to exactly the same reason for the difference between the device manufacturers themselves. Devices will have different chipsets, or antenna, or will be able to connect to more frequency bands, there are 40 different bands in use for 4G after all. Different manufacturers will use different components, but then a manufacturer will use different quality components across a range of devices depending on how much it plans to charge for the specific device.

Moving forward, when latency becomes more of a factor, this is another area which could see more variance.

Latency is often discussed today, and while there are few usecases for the moment, this is an area which will continue to develop over the coming years. Release 16 from 3GPP should improve these metrics and drive the creation of new business cases. Soon enough there might be more justification for ludicrously expensive flagship devices outside the realms of bells and whistles.

Opensignal Latency Grpahic

An interesting question for Apple customers will be the performance of the devices in the future. Over the last few years, Apple has been moving more of its supply chain in-house, attempting to remove any reliance on external partners. The recent purchase of Intel’s smartphone chip business unit is an excellent example.

Apple is a company which excels at a lot of things, but the hardcore engineering of components is not one of them right now. The leader in the modem field is arguably Qualcomm, though considering the turbulent relationship between the two over the last two years, it would surprise few to see a permanent end to it. What impact this has on the performance of the iPhone remains to be seen.

Huawei is another which could be skating on thin ice. Similar to Apple, the Chinese giant has moved more activities to its own components business, HiSilicon, though it is still reliant on external partners in certain areas. A number of these suppliers are from the US, painting an unpleasant picture while it remains on the Entity List, banned from purchasing some critical components.

Corning is one supplier to Huawei, however finding another company to supply the cover glass will be a simple job. When it comes to the highly-specialised semiconductor manufacturers, one of the areas the US excels globally, it becomes a bit more difficult. The likes of Qualcomm, Skyworks Solutions, Micron, Qorvo and NeoPhotonics would have been selected for a reason. There will be alternatives, but you have to wonder whether this will impact performance.

The technology industry is going through an interesting time at the moment, and depending on who you work for, that is either very good or very bad. With the growth of the voice interface and emerging technologies such as AR set to play a bigger role in the future, devices could look and feel incredibly different in a few years.

Interestingly enough, consumers don’t seem to purchase devices based on the performance offered. This might be down to the assumption performance is entirely driven by the telcos, or perhaps consumers do not understand the complexities. Maybe this will change in the future, but it could certainly be a selling-factor for some manufacturers if the consumer actually understands the language, numbers and acronyms.

There will be new factors to consider when purchasing or even using a device, but when things do go wrong, blaming the telcos for poor performance might not be the most complete assumption.

US is winning the 5G speed race

Although there is a lot more to 5G than ‘bigger, faster, meaner’ download speeds, the US has bragging rights currently when it comes to the fastest download speeds.

According to the latest analysis from Opensignal, 5G is boosting maximum downloads in all eight markets where the connectivity euphoria has been launched, aside from Australia that is. It’s a very crude measure of success, but it is something which the telcos will want to shout about.

As you can see from the graphic below, there is certainly an increase in speed, though this is hardly a good measure when you consider very few consumers even touch the maximum speeds promised.

Opensignal graphic

Leading the pack is the US with maximum downloads speeds of 1815 Mbps, and by somewhat of a clear margin, though both Switzerland and South Korea have entered into the holy land of gigabit speeds. Perhaps the strangest statistic to make note of is the decrease in maximum speeds in Australia.

The lead which the US has established should come as little surprise when you consider the spectrum being utilised. Telcos in the US are already able to use mmWave spectrum for 5G, whereas European counterparts are utilising the mid-band spectrum, which sacrifices some speed to improve geographical coverage.

Looking at the UK, which currently sits bottom of the rankings, there is perhaps something for Three to shout about. Opensignal suggests speeds here might be impacted by the fact EE only has 40 MHz of relevant spectrum. Three has been shouting about its 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 5G bands, claiming it is best positioned to deliver the 5G experience, and this analysis perhaps supports this claim.

And to address some of the speed differences between Opensignal and the figures which are being quoted by the telcos, this analysis is being done in the real world. Consumers are asked to download the Opensignal app, allowing the team to assess speeds in the real-world, with a range of different devices (manufacturer and condition) and a variety of applications.

But you also have to take into account these speeds are not realistic whatsoever; its nothing but a PR plug for the ‘creatives’ in the marketing department to make use of. Let’s take Australia as an example.

According to this analysis, Australian telcos can achieve a maximum download speed of 950 Mbps for 4G. However, as you can see from the graphic below, reality is far from the maximum achieved in perfect test conditions.

Opensignal 4G graphic

Although we are comparing apples and pears here, the theory is the same. Real-world experience is entirely different from the maximum speeds which the telcos boast about; this has been true for the 4G world and it would be perfectly reasonable to assume the same for the 5G era.

Fundamentally, this means very little for the moment. Coverage is incredibly limited while reality will be very different when more users hit the network. You also have to take into account European operators do not have access to the high-band spectrum which will deliver the monstrous speeds promised.

That said, the variety of speeds perhaps give an indication of the success of deployment strategies. It is certainly early days in the 5G era, but the US has claimed the first accolade when it comes to the dated ‘bigger, faster, meaner’ mentality which has governed the telcos for years.

South Korea has the best mobile experience except for latency – Opensignal

Network measurement outfit Opensignal has published its latest ‘State of the mobile network experience’ report and Korea is mostly on top.

South Korea is well ahead of any other country in the world when it comes to download experience, with average speeds topping 50 Mbps, which most fixed broadband users can only dream about. Only Norway comes close, with even third-placed Canada a clear 10 Mbps behind. At the other end of the scale we inevitably have developing countries, but it’s surprising to see India still lagging at 6.8 Mbps average despite all the investment from Jio.

Download Speed Experience_Opensignal State of Mobile Network Experience 2019

It looks like all that Jio cash has been focused on coverage, with India doing a lot better in terms of 4G availability. Your average Indian punter get access to 4G 90% of the time, we’re told, but that’s still not good enough to challenge South Korea, which once more tops the list with 97.5% availability. Iraq, Algeria, Nepal and Uzbekistan once more prop up the table, as they did with download experience.

4G Availability_Opensignal State of Mobile Network Experience 2019

Intriguingly South Korea is nowhere near as good when it comes to latency experience, for some reason and is also dropping the ball in terms of video experience. We thought the two were related until we saw that Norway is top of the video experience pile in spite of being even worse than Korea when comes to latency, so maybe not. Europe is generally strong when it comes to latency and video experience.

Comparison of leading countries in Opensignal key metrics_Opensignal State of Mobile Network Experience 2019

Faster isn’t always better – O2

With a new Opensignal report suggesting O2 has the slowest download speeds of the UK MNOs, the telco has hit back suggesting experience is about more than just speed.

According to the report, O2 has the largest proportion of customers experiencing slower speeds across the UK. This is down to a number of different factors, one of which is how spectrum holdings have shaped 4G deployment strategies.

The image below outlines what percentage of customers are experiencing different speeds across all the UK MNOs.

Openreach 1

While this might not paint the prettiest of pictures for O2, the telco has pointed out faster is not necessarily better.

“O2’s network deployment is focussed on customer experience and demand rather than maximum capabilities of certain aspects of network performance such as download speeds,” an O2 spokesperson said. “Some of the most popular mobile applications such as playing the game Fornite or streaming high definition content from Netflix require around 3-5 Mbps.”

Such is the obsession with speed, the entire telco industry is built on the concept of ‘bigger, faster, meaner’. Performance of telcos are measured on average speeds, however, one should perhaps question what speeds are necessary to produce the desired customer experience. Sometimes 10 Mbps is all that is required.

“We continue to invest £2m every day to improve the network experience for our customers as well as using a combination of technical and customer insight to gauge how well the network is performing and how satisfied customers are with their service. For the second year running O2 recently won uSwitch’s 2019 award for best network coverage as voted by the public and continues to have among the lowest levels of churn in Europe.”

In fairness to O2, you can’t argue with the numbers. In terms of market share, O2 is the leading telco in the UK. It must be doing something right otherwise how would it maintain this position? It isn’t the cheapest, the fastest or one which can offer any sort of convergence offering.

This second image from Opensignal indicates the spectrum holdings which are being utilised by each of the telcos.

Openreach 2

As you can see O2 is heavily reliant on the sub-1 GHz bands. The advantage of this band is greater range and better indoor coverage, though there is a trade-off when it comes to speed. And while some might complain about the lack of horse-power, it doesn’t seem to matter than much at the end of the day.

In the last financial results, O2 boasted of year-on-year revenue growth of 5.3%, a total subscription increase of 2.3% and customer churn of 0.9%, the lowest in the market, it claims.

What is worth noting is this is relevant for today. This might seem like an incredibly obvious statement, but developers are constantly bringing out new applications which test the boundaries of acceptability. Video and more immersive gaming content are ensuring demands on the network, and capable speeds, are a constant threat.

For the moment, this position from O2 seems perfectly sustainable, but how long the status quo lasts remains to be seen. Speed is not necessarily the defining factor of experience today, as long as fast is fast enough.

Turns out AT&T’s 5G E is just LTE-A after all

Network measurer OpenSignal has had a look at the performance subscribers are getting from AT&T’s whizzy new 5G Evolution service and it’s nothing special.

“Analyzing Opensignal’s data shows that AT&T users with 5G E-capable smartphones receive a better experience than AT&T users with less capable smartphone models, for example those with an LTE Category below 16,” wrote OpenSignal Analyst Ian Fogg. “But AT&T users with a 5G E-capable smartphone receive similar speeds to users on other carriers with the same smartphone models that AT&T calls 5G E. The 5G E speeds which AT&T users experience are very much typical 4G speeds and not the step-change improvement which 5G promises.”

In other words there’s nothing special going on. If you’ve got a phone that supports LTE-Advanced you’re going to get around 29 Mbps download speed regardless of whether your operator cheekily rebrands it on your phone screen. Unless you’re on Sprint, however, which has a best effort of around 20 Mbps (see table).

Opensignal 5GE table

AT&T was universally mocked when its bright idea of rebranding LTE-A at 5G E first emerged. Sprint, of all companies, even decided to call the lawyers in to challenge the claimed deception, but AT&T continues to insist it was a great idea. Its marketing department presumably won’t be thanking OpenSignal for this latest revelation, but what did they expect?

UK and Germany are a bit rubbish at mobile – Opensignal

A new study from mobile analytics company Opensignal notes the UK and Germany are falling behind in terms of mobile performance.

It took a look at the two operator groups that have networks in both countries and found they all deliver relatively low mobile broadband speeds in those two countries. As you can see in the charts below, Telefónica does a fair bit worse in the UK and Germany than in Spain, but maybe that’s to be expected since it’s a Spanish company. However the trend continues with Vodafone, for which the UK and Germany are two of its worst performers.

opensignal telefonica

opensignal vodafone

“So what’s the reason for these relatively poor mobile broadband speeds in Germany and the U.K.?” said Opensignal Analyst Peter Boyland. “It certainly isn’t market maturity or competition, as both countries have had mobile networks for decades and levels of competition, numbers of operators, etc. are comparable with their neighbours.

“Topographically, both countries have challenges in terms of size and population density, but no more than, say, Italy or Spain. It would be easy to blame poor performance on underinvestment in network infrastructure, but the reality is a combination of many factors including regulation, availability of spectrum, and mergers and acquisitions among network operators.

“The fact remains that Germany and the U.K. are punching well under their weight in terms of mobile network speeds. Both countries are on the verge of 5G launches, but it is likely to be some years before the benefits of these new networks are felt by most mobile users. And there is growing discontent among the business community in Germany, with claims that poor broadband speeds are hindering economic growth. Germany and the U.K. may not be able to wait for the 5G opportunity, as their operators urgently need to make improvements in their mobile network experience today.”

Something’s certainly going on when two major operator groups can only manage around half the performance in the UK and Germany as they can in their leading markets. As Boyland said this situation will be the product of a number of factors, but our gut-feel is that regulation and spectrum availability are probably the most significant of them.

Ignore 5G critics because we need 5G to relieve 4G network congestion

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Ian Fogg, VP of Analysis at OpenSignal, urges the telecoms industry to accentuate the positive when it comes to 5G.

As 5G arrives in 2019, the early hype is beginning to be replaced by criticism that early 5G deployments will not be so different to 4G. The implication is clear: 5G isn’t a big deal. The problem with this analysis is that it confuses potential initial 5G teething issues with the real importance of 5G for the future.

4G networks are becoming overloaded. Today, we can see enormous mobile network experience differences by comparing otherwise similar cities. The success of the smartphone boom and cheaper and cheaper data tariffs are continuing to drive up mobile data usage. Consumers need 5G to relieve pressure on existing networks, otherwise speeds and other mobile network experience factors will worsen. The mobile industry needs 5G, or congestion and a declining mobile experience will make it hard for operators to maintain existing revenue levels, let alone increase them. Mobile network vendors need 5G to succeed to support capital expenditure by operators.

We at OpenSignal can see these real-world mobile broadband challenges across the world. We see the fastest speeds and best latencies in cities where operators have deployed solid 4G networks and priced data at a sustainable price (not as a bargain).

For example, there are clear-cut differences today in 4G experience between otherwise similar cities, likely because of the degree of smartphone usage:

  • In South-East Asia, the 4G Download for smartphone users in Singapore is far faster at 47.7 Mbps than compared with similar-sized and similarly technologically advanced Hong Kong, where networks enable an average 4G download experience of just 17.3 Mbps, or just 36% of the speed in Singapore.
  • South Asia offers another example: New Delhi users experience 4G Download Speeds of just 7 Mbps, where speed differences by time of day highlight the load India’s users place on networks, This compares with nearby Karachi’s average 12.9 Mbps 4G Download Speed.
  • Across Europe’s advanced Nordic markets, the mobile network experience is considerably better in Oslo, Norway (59 Mbps average 4G Download Speed in our measurements) than in Helsinki, Finland (36.7 Mbps). Although Finland is an advanced mobile-centric country, hosting the HQ of Nokia — one of the three leading network infrastructure companies — a combination of cheap data and little interest in fixed services puts more load on Helsinki’s mobile services, contributing to significantly lower speeds in the Finnish capital than in nearby Norway.
  • In North America, Toronto’s smartphone users enjoy 4G download speeds 33% faster than New York’s, where OpenSignal analytics show 4G Download Speeds of 41.1 Mbps and 30.8 Mbps respectively.

Initial 5G new radio deployments – “real 5G” – aim to tackle these real-world problems. Enhanced mobile broadband services – targeting smartphone usage – and fixed wireless are the two use cases covered by the 3GPP’s initial 5G standards. While the more ambitious goals for 5G are to drive Internet of Things (IoT) markets, such as industrial automation or autonomous driving, they are not yet covered by ratified 3GPP standards. They are a work in progress which will arrive later in the 5G era.

While 5G is more efficient with its use of spectrum, but unlike previous network generations that is not the primary way that 5G will support a better mobile broadband experience for smartphone users. The 5G standards enable the use of much higher frequencies for mobile use cases. These frequencies have much greater capacity than the existing LTE frequencies. And, they have not previously been used for mobile.

The 3.4 Mhz – 3.8 Mhz channels will be the most popular globally and will balance mobility with high capacity. The millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies available now in North America and select countries will offer even more extreme capacity and higher speeds but will be much more challenging to deploy because of their line-of-sight propagation characteristics and the disadvantage of being easily blocked by walls, or even by smartphone users’ hands, or even by a tree’s leaves.

Over time, 5G launches will improve mobile latency – a measure of network responsiveness – which will make everything from web browsing to voice over IP (VoIP) communication work more smoothly. The greatest initial impact will likely be improving the user experience of multiplayer mobile action games on a mobile connection. Today, many Fortnite or PUBG players choose to use Wifi in preference to cellular connections because of lower and more consistent latency.

As 5G rolls out, we will see latency improve on mobile networks too. Smartphone users will see some improvement when connecting with initial 5G networks, but the full 5G latency benefit will only arrive once operators deploy a 5G network core and launch “standalone” 5G where a smartphone is able to connect to just a 5G signal. This contrasts with 2019’s 5G “non-standalone” launches where a smartphone will connect to a 5G carrier for data transmission while maintaining a simultaneous 4G carrier connection to enable management by an operator’s existing network core.

While the 4G technology we use today is also called “Long Term Evolution”, the 5G era will have its own extended evolutionary cycle. The 5G experience we will all enjoy 10 years from now will be considerably improved from the early 5G launches we will see in 2019.

When you hear about 5G teething problems this year, remember it’s going to improve and 5G will be with all of us for the long term. And, also remember why the industry needs 5G now: to support the mass of current smartphones by adding mobile broadband capacity to reduce congestion, and to enable operators to continue to deliver a great mobile network experience as smartphone data usage continues to grow.

 

Ian Fogg - VP Analysis_OpensignalAt Opensignal, Ian and his team develop new insights and analysis using Opensignal’s mobile analytics data. Prior to joining Opensignal, Ian created product strategy recommendations and market analysis reports for 15 years at Forrester, IHS Markit and Jupiter Research. As Senior Director at IHS, Ian led the team responsible for forecasting mobile network infrastructure, telecom operators, mobile apps, smartwatches and smartphones.

Ian has 9 years of experience in product and marketing roles at mobile operator Three, cable operator Cable & Wireless and device maker Psion. Ian has end-to-end expertise across the mobile and telecom market. He is an energetic and passionate speaker and is regularly quoted in business media, including: CNBC, Financial Times, BBC, AP and Reuters.

4G is over-congested and 5G is the solution – Opensignal

Network monitoring outfit Opensignal has published its latest global report, which concludes congestion is messing with the 4G user experience.

In some countries the 4G download user speeds experienced by consumers can vary by 30 Mbps over the course of the day thanks to network congestion. European countries seems to be the best at dealing with this congestion, with the US in the middle and some Asian countries struggling. Globally, peak traffic speeds are around have the level of the quietest times.

opensignal average 4G speeds

“To launch all the most demanding new applications, such as augmented reality or autonomous driving, operators and app developers must be able to break free from today’s limitations where they are forced to create services and apps for the worst-case congestion conditions,” concludes the report. “The world needs new 5G networks to offer increased capacity, and more consistent speeds to sustain new innovations.”

It also notes that 5G is best suited to cities because of the shorter range of the higher frequencies, which is handy because that’s where the worst of the congestion is. Here’s a handy chart showing the speed ranges experienced by country. Looks like Belarus could do with a bit of 5G magic.

opensignal country 4G speeds small

Mobile performance is increasingly better than wifi – OpenSignal

Mobile analytics company OpenSignal has had a look mobile and wifi performance around the world and concluded mobile is catching up fast.

In 33 countries, according to the report, smartphone users get faster average download speeds from their mobile network than from wifi. The country with the greatest discrepancy in favour of mobile is Australia, where average speeds are 13 Mbps faster than wifi. In most countries the respective data rates seem to be pretty similar but wifi still prevails in some, including the US where it’s still 25 Mbps faster, on average.

You can see all the data in the table below and the significance of it to OpenSignal is that wifi is no longer always preferable to mobile, when it’s available. A decade ago mobile data was just a slop, expensive stopgap in between wifi hotspots for when we absolutely had to get online to check the football scores, or whatever.

Now the only reason to prefer wifi in a lot of countries is that its unmetered, but that is likely be less of a factor in the 5G era, with unlimited tariffs likely to proliferate. For that reason OpenSignal reckons operators and smartphone makers will need to have a rethink about mobile offload, to avoid prioritising lower-performance networks.

Opensignal wifi vs cellular

There’s a big difference between download speed and mobile video experience

Network rating outfit OpenSignal has started measuring ‘video experience’ as well as raw network performance and found they don’t necessarily correlate.

A new report entitled The State of Mobile Video ranks a bunch of countries according to their mobile video experience on an arbitrary scale of 0-100. This takes into account not just download speed but things like ‘traffic management’ (often referred to as throttling) and latency. These can all contribute to things like buffering and slow load times, all of which affect the overall video experience.

As you can see from the scatter graph below, taken from the report, there is a fair bit of variation in the correlation between download speed and video experience. If the correlation was exact then you’d just have a straight diagonal line, but as you can see the country with the fastest raw speed – South Korea – isn’t even in the top ten for mobile video experience.

Conversely the Czech Republic has been found to be top of the pops when it comes to mobile video experience but is also just outside the top ten for download speed. We spoke to OpenSignal CEO Brendan Gill and he revealed the main reasons for these discrepancies are traffic management and latency.

Another outlier country is the US, which has a relatively low mobile video score compared to download speed. A major reason for this is probably unmetered tariffs that theoretically allow unlimited video streaming but in practice feature fairly extensive restrictions on bandwidth. This practice is understandable but there is an argument that if those services are being positioned as ‘unlimited’ then there’s some mis-selling going on.

Latency is most pertinent when it comes to shorter video clips typically accessed over social media. If you’re scrolling through your social media feed you’re probably not prepared to wait more than a second or so for a clip to start playing. While this is probably a sad indictment of the modern attention span and certainly qualifies as a first world problem, that’s the environment we’re operating in and apparently US load times aren’t great.

Opensignal mobile video chart