Data consumption surges in lockdown Britain

Virgin Media O2 reveals performance data showing 2021 was a record year for data consumption

In what it calls another rollercoaster year reflected by digital behaviours amid lockdown and varying restrictions, Virgin Media O2 has reported sustained growth in demand for services as customers made a long-term shift to hybrid working, a move that it says enhances a need for ultrafast and reliable connectivity across fixed and mobile networks.

The survey analysed tens of millions of customers between 1 January and 10 December 2021, and revealed the impact of a year of highs and lows on the nation’s connectivity habits across the merged company’s mobile, broadband and TV networks.

In a year that saw a third national lockdown, a summer of freedom and then the emergence of Omicron and new restrictions, as well as great appetite for major sports and gaming launches, the company said the one thing that remained constant was the nation’s reliance on technology.

Indeed, Virgin Media O2 said that during 2021 it witnessed its biggest year for data usage on both broadband and mobile networks, as more people than ever went online to chat, stream, share and game. In 2021, customers downloaded 19% more broadband data than the previous year, with mobile traffic up 45% year on year.

From a business perspective, the company said there had been a trend to move from home working weariness to hybrid working “bliss”. Analysis from Virgin Media’s broadband network revealed that Brits downloaded on average 18.9GB of data per day between January and February 2021 – a 52% increase on pre-pandemic levels.

The peak period for broadband and mobile download traffic shifted from 8pm to 4pm during lockdown in February 2021. Virgin described this as the time when “frazzled parents relied on streaming TV, YouTube and online gaming to distract their kids” while juggling remote working and Zoom calls. October saw peak download traffic return to 8pm, as Brits adapted to new hybrid working patterns.

During the summer, Virgin witnessed a large uptick in live sport viewing, up 24% annually. The busiest days of TV viewing were linked to some of the biggest sporting moments early in the year, including the India vs England Test Cricket, FA Cup clashes and the Super Bowl. And in early December, Premier League matches streamed on Amazon Prime drove the busiest evening peak of the year, with broadband traffic up 34% on average, and 24% higher than the previous year’s events.

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Gaming also showed a substantial rise over the year. Lockdown supercharged time spent on Fortnite, Roblox and FIFA, with people at home using more data than ever for gaming. New releases of Call of duty, Fortnite and Apex legends drove large data spikes in February and March, leading to some of the busiest days for broadband traffic.

Even after 2021 lockdown ended in July, gaming on Virgin Media’s broadband network continued to rise: 5 December marked the biggest data download day, driven by the hotly anticipated release of Fortnite chapter 3, while Warzone Caldera and Halo infinite, which dropped 13 hours apart, caused evening traffic to surge to the second-highest levels ever on 8 December.

Other consumption highlights include “peak Netflix” day, namely the release of Squid game, which drove the most Netflix traffic on 3 October, jumping 27% over previous weekends. Virgin Media’s broadband network saw significantly lower levels of internet usage during England’s Euro 2020 matches, with the biggest drop coming during the final, with customers downloading 28% less traffic compared with the previous week as fans were rendered speechless.

Commenting on the survey, Virgin Media O2 chief technology officer Jeanie York said: “The data is clear that these changes are long-lasting: even as we regained our freedom, we continued to connect with friends and family. Whatever 2022 has in store for us, we’re fully prepared to keep the country connected with the things they love.”

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