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UK consumers demand greater reliability, not more speed, from mobile networks

UK mobile users’ demands evolve as operators hit sweet sport for speed and consumers calling loud and clear for greater emphasis on network reliability

A national study into UK mobile network performance from network benchmarking firm Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) has revealed that smartphone use is now not a race, with consumers calling for greater emphasis on network reliability.

The network’s assessment involved GWS’s engineers conducting 936,249 data and voice task tests to evaluate the network performance of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone in 36 major cities and towns and roads, in 2019.

The tests were conducted using the GWS OneMeasure App running on iPhone devices, Rohde & Schwarz’s Freerider SW using Samsung Galaxy devices, and the GWS Mobistat data evaluation and reporting platform. It also used nationwide focus groups conducted in partnership with Jigsaw Research, and consumer research polling over 2,000 smartphone users through research firm YouGov. The total sample size was 2,117 adults, of which 1,913 have a smartphone. Fieldwork was undertaken on 20-21 January 2020.

With speed often cited as a key measure of network performance, the report identified that the “sweet spot” of network speed is between four and six seconds and nearly four-fifths of users deem this to be an acceptable time to wait to complete mobile-based activities such as loading news and other websites. Using this metric as a benchmark, GWS’s engineering level test data across the UK highlighted that typically operators are reaching this speed 96% of the time, even though nearly three-fifths of users (56%) said they had encountered problems with their mobile network.

When looking at issues that people regularly encounter with their network, websites and apps failing to load were cited by almost a third of users, 21% reported poor voice quality, 19% said calls don’t connect and 19% said calls drop mid-call – all areas which contribute to network reliability.

Which mobile operator tops the reliability rankings?

GWS said the results therefore call for greater focus to be made on network reliability, looking at this as a core measure of network success. Moreover, as many as 41% of the sample considered network reliability to be more important than speed, compared with just 1% who said speed was more important to them than reliability. This, said GWS, casts doubt on the ongoing emphasis on speed as the core metric when benchmarking network performance.

On this basis, GWS focused its OneScore rankings on network reliability, revealing that O2 won out as the UK’s most reliable network for the second year running, with the operator ranking top in 18 out of 36 locations tested in the UK. The second most reliable network was EE, which scored most reliable in 14 locations, making it the most improved operator for network reliability. Vodafone was ranked top in just four locations, but did record more second place finishes than any other operator. Three did not rank as being the most reliable network in any of the cities and towns tested.

When looking at the regional rankings, which combine the results from all operators, Liverpool and Cardiff were ranked the most reliable cities for mobile network connectivity, whereas Leeds, Edinburgh, Sunderland and London scored worst.

Coverage continues to be a key area for operators to improve on, according to UK smartphone users. When asked to select one area for improvement by network operators, over a quarter (28%) reported the desire for increased network coverage, as opposed to just 8% who wanted to see faster data speeds than they currently experience. In addition, when selecting a new plan, over half (54%) of people said that network coverage would be an important factor in their decision – more than double the amount of people who would consider network speed (26%).

Voice calling appears to be a key reason behind consumers’ desire for increased coverage, with more people (31%) indicating that a lack of mobile network signal was most frustrating when they needed to make a phone call than in any other situation.

“The need for speed is an ongoing conversation in the industry and seems to be the de facto benchmark when measuring network success. But that model is broken – while the advance of 5G brings with it exciting innovations that will undoubtedly change the way we use our phones, just like 4G did a few years ago, using your smartphone is not a race,” noted GWS CEO Paul Carter.

“Consumers are not just using their phones for speed-hungry activities. They use their phones for a wide range of activities – from calls and messaging to life administration tasks and shopping. While people place greater emphasis on the importance of reliability, 36% of smartphone owners do still feel that speed and reliability are equally important,” he added.

“Speed and reliability need to co-exist and operators need to weave together a complex tapestry, otherwise known as the network, to ensure they are delivering on all fronts for consumers, not just speed. After all, what difference does it really make if your network is a few megabits faster if you can already stream your favourite video and open apps without issues, but are still struggling with dropped calls? It’s clear that consumers don’t consider all areas of network performance to be the same, with voice ranking top.”

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