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The advent of reliable and almost ubiquitous 4G networks means that Britons are now spending two hours online on their smartphones every day – almost twice as long as on laptops and TVs – according to research conducted by telecoms regulator Ofcom.
Ofcom’s 2015 Communications Market Report found that 33% of internet users in the UK see their smartphone as their primary device for going online, compared with the 30% sticking to more traditional options.
The data shows a clear increase over the course of the past 12 months. At the same time in 2014, only 22% of people turned to their smartphone before their computer to go online.
Ofcom also reported a surge in ownership levels, with 66% of UK adults now owning a smartphone – up from 39% in 2012. Predictably, the highest ownership rates were among 16-24 year olds, 90% of whom now have a smartphone in their pocket. However, the 55-64 demographic is quickly catching up, with ownership up to 50% from 19% in 2012.
During 2014, 4G subscriptions jumped from 2.7 million to 23.6 million, another clear indicator of prevailing trends. Coverage is now available in just under 90% of UK premises, and 42% of the population is covered by all four main mobile network operators.
Users are taking full advantage of the browsing speeds offered by 4G networks – which can often outpace those available on fixed broadband connections – with 55% of 4G users shopping on their smartphones, compared with 35% of non-4G users.
4G users were also found to be banking more online (55% versus 33%); streaming more video (57% versus 40%); making more use of VoIP or VoWiFi services (28% versus 20%); sending more photos and videos (49% versus 36%); and making more use of over-the-top (OTT) services, such as WhatsApp (63% versus 50%), a key factor in the ongoing decline of SMS volume.
“4G has supercharged our smartphones, helping people do everything from the weekly shop to catching up with friends with a face-to-face video call. For the first time, smartphones have overtaken laptops as the UK’s most popular internet device and are now the hub of our daily lives,” said James Thickett, Ofcom director of research.
The report also revealed that more photos are now taken on smartphones than on cameras, with 1.2 billion selfies taken in the past 12 months – 19 for every man, woman and child in the country.
Additionally, Ofcom reported that 55% of people thought it was unacceptable to check their smartphone at the dinner table, but 42% of people did it anyway.
And while consumers were fairly unanimous on the benefits being online brought them – such as feeling more informed about news and current events and staying in touch with family and friends – there was still more than enough time for a screen break, with 69% of people saying they would prefer to catch up over a cup of tea.
Ofcom also reported that there were still 2% of premises, totaling around 500,000 properties, unable to receive even a 2G signal.
The regulator vowed to double down on its efforts to see the widest possible availability of communications services, and said it would continue to consider what options could be taken to improve mobile and fixed broadband coverage.
Before the end of 2015, Ofcom plans to publish a new series of maps enabling consumers to compare mobile coverage across the country, down to the nearest 100m2.
“Improving the coverage and quality of all communications services across the UK is a priority for Ofcom and for people at work, home or on the move,” said Ofcom chief executive Sharon White.
Comms revenues squeezed
Ofcom’s report may have made good reading for the likes of EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, but overall communications spending has fallen dramatically since 2010, said the regulator.
Average monthly household spending on comms services is down in real terms from £122.07 in 2009 to £117.71 in 2014, and thanks to falling wholesale revenues, total telecoms revenues fell by 2% to £37.4bn in 2014.
Fixed internet revenue growth, on the other hand, accelerated as more people switched over to fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) and fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections. Retail residential and small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) fixed internet revenues were up to £4.9bn in 2014, compared with £4.2bn in 2013.
Four in five households now have fixed broadband access, with a third of those having superfast broadband, which Ofcom sets at 30Mbps and above – compared with the government definition of 24Mbps. Superfast broadband is available to 83% of UK premises as of May 2015.
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