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UK must continue to embrace technological innovation and invest in mobile infrastructure

Video conferencing and livestreaming over mobile have entered the mainstream, but speed testing finds many users suffer from connectivity issues that prevent them from making full use of these services

A study from mobile network benchmarking company Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) has shone a light on mobile network coverage and service usage in the new Britain forged in the post-Covid environment – in particular the increased use of streaming services and video calling – but it also highlighted potential quality issues.

GWS conducted its quantitative consumer polling of 2,023 consumers and speed testing of networks with Censuswide. Fieldwork was undertaken between 17 November and 10 December 2021, carried out online using smartphones.

The company carried out direct benchmark testing in all areas of the UK from October to December 2021, driving 33 markets and 15 motorways throughout the UK during the testing process, resulting in the completion of more than a million Android and iOS individual controlled tests.

Usage of mobile apps with video and livestreaming capabilities has risen sharply through the pandemic, as events have been cancelled and remote alternatives became the only viable option. UK mobile users reported using a number of video conferencing and video call services at higher rates: 31% of respondents that use Facebook Messenger reported that they use it more often now than before the pandemic, and similarly, 23% of FaceTime users and 31% of Zoom users reported that they use those apps more regularly now than before.

However, while many reported becoming increasingly willing or reliant on video streaming services, the survey also revealed that many users suffered from connectivity issues that prevent them from making full use of these services. Nearly a quarter (24%) of those who have watched a remote event live claim to have encountered sound issues that damaged the experience; the same percentage reported fuzzy or low-quality picture, and 23% experienced video freezing through events that take place via mobile apps.

The issue of poor video quality was compounded when UK mobile users’ network speeds were put through speed tests. GWS’s speed testing found that of those with mobile devices able to conduct livestreams and video calls, one-third (33%) had inadequate speeds to either watch or broadcast a live HD stream effectively. This was defined as speeds less than 5 Mbps to watch and 4.5 Mbps to broadcast. Respondents on the O2 network complained the least among the customers of the four big mobile operators when asked which issues impacted their ability to both watch and initiate a livestream.

Specific issues included sound, low picture quality or video freezing. Over half (51%) of O2 customers reported no issues watching livestreamed content, whereas only 42% of both EE and Vodafone customers, and 37% of those on Three, reported no issues. Customers on these three networks also reported audio and picture quality issues at much higher rates, with over a quarter (26%) of those on EE encountering poor sound quality and 27% of Three customers reporting a fuzzy or low-quality picture when watching a livestreamed event, while 27% of Vodafone customers experienced issues with livestreams freezing.

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The continued development of the UK’s 5G networks enthused the sample. Nearly a third of those surveyed (28%) said they were excited about the launch of 5G and the reliability it promises; in addition, a fifth (22%) responded that they thought 5G would be most important for keeping in touch with friends and family.

GWS’s drive testing discovered that three of the four major operators have doubled their nationwide 5G coverage in comparison with last year (EE’s 5G coverage increased approximately 120%, O2’s 260%, Three’s 150% and Vodafone’s 90%). The study showed that 25 out of the 33 major metropolitan cities and towns that GWS tested across the UK now offer 5G coverage from all four operators.

“Our data points to the fact that while current network capabilities allow people to feel connected, there are limitations,” said Global Wireless Solutions CEO Paul Carter.

“The increased importance of high-quality streaming services, enabled by reliable connectivity, shows that the UK must continue to embrace technological innovation and invest in its digital infrastructure,” he said. “5G technology, with its reliability, super-fast speeds and low latency, provides an answer to this issue. Investments in 5G technology will ensure this is an option open to all.”

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