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Evidence emerges of slow increase in global mobile cellular network times

Smartphone users may have seen the worst of the negative impact from the coronavirus pandemic on their cellular experience, with time connected to Wi-Fi networks decreasing, Opensignal research finds

Research from mobile network experience measurement firm Opensignal suggests that global smartphone users might have seen the worst of the negative impact from the Covid-19 pandemic on their mobile experience. 

In its ongoing update on the state of mobile networks around the world, Opensignal said that over the past few months, it had seen how the pandemic has affected users’ mobile network experience. For the most part, mobile networks have been highly resilient, it said, and during the lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it saw mobile users spend an increasing amount of time connected to Wi-Fi networks.

Yet at the same time, mobile connection speeds decreased in some countries, generally because of an increase in data consumption. 

Fast-forwarding to the present, Opensignal said that over the last couple of weeks, many users of its service had seen the mobile network experience slowly improve, suggesting that smartphone users might have seen the worst of the negative impact from the pandemic.

To understand how the mobile network experience compares with pre-lockdown levels, Opensignal assessed the amount of time smartphone users spent connected to Wi-Fi in the past four months, as well as the change in 4G download speeds experienced by its users across more than 40 countries.

It said that now governments have started to ease their restrictions, time spent on home Wi-Fi services – which had seen a huge increase due to people using non-cellular connection for applications such as videoconferencing – has begun to decrease from peak values in several countries, mostly in Europe and Asia.

One of the key drivers for this was the fact that people were spending more time outside their homes, said Opensignal. Yet despite what it said was a truing point for mobile usage, the analyst stressed that even though governments have relaxed lockdown measures in most countries, it has not seen time on Wi-Fi return to pre-crisis levels, indicating that people continue to spend more time at home than they did before the pandemic.

In April 2020, Opensignal analysed 4G download speeds across several regions and observed only relatively small changes in users’ experience in a few countries. Generally, it noted that mobile operators offered resilient services for their mobile users during this unprecedented situation, although a few countries showed some drops in speed.

Opensignal said that since the beginning of May, it had observed mobile speeds slowly increase towards pre-lockdown levels in many countries, such as Italy, Malaysia and Qatar, where 4G download speeds had dropped in March.

The company identified a number of drivers that were likely to have contributed to those speed drops, including increasing mobile data consumption, operators relaxing data limits, changes in the time and location of users’ mobile usage, and pre-emptive measures adopted by operators to ensure continuity of service on their networks.

Drilling deeper, and observing what was happening in the key Asia-Pacific region, Opensignal noted that Hong Kong was the first country to see a significant increase in time on Wi-Fi. Users were found to be still connecting to Wi-Fi networks more often compared with pre-pandemic levels in early January, when they spent 55% of the time connected to Wi-Fi networks. 

South Korea and Taiwan did not show any meaningful variation in time on Wi-Fi. However, Taiwan saw consistent, if not higher, 4G download speeds during the entire period of the analysis, while South Korea showed a small dip since the end of April, with the average 4G download speed now 6.3% lower compared with the pre-lockdown level.

In Singapore in April, there was what was described as a “noticeable” increase in time on Wi-Fi, up from 56.3% to 70.8%, and 4G download speeds were slightly lower than before the lockdowns.

Time on Wi-Fi in most countries in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region was found to have decreased from the peak values reached in April. Germany and Bulgaria appeared to be at the forefront of the trend, with time on Wi-Fi back to pre-lockdown levels. 4G download speeds returned to normal levels in all countries except South Africa and the Netherlands.

In South Africa, users are still experiencing 4G download speeds 14.8% lower than the median value for the first 10 weeks of the year, while users in the Netherlands recently saw speeds decrease by more than 5% compared with pre-lockdown levels.

Canada, Mexico and the US showed a similar pattern in time on Wi-Fi, with the metric increasing since the countries introduced restrictions. But while Mexico’s time on Wi-Fi has been mostly flat around its peak since April, Canada and the US saw their values steadily decrease after the first four weeks.

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