Wifi vs Mobile. Which is quicker?

27 Nov 2018

There’s long been an industry assumption that Wifi is better than mobile networks in almost every
way. As a result, ever since the arrival of the earliest iPhone and Android smartphones around ten
years ago, smartphones have routinely jumped on the nearest known Wifi connection and used it in
preference to 2G, 3G or 4G mobile networks for data.

But now new OpenSignal research indicates that mobile is no longer inferior to Wifi in every
regard and the mobile industry must change a number of design decisions as a result.The reason early modern smartphones made the choice to stop using cellular for data if a usable Wifi
hotspot was nearby is simple to understand given the situation back then.

Ten years ago, Wifi:

  • Was faster than mobile almost all of the time. The first iPhone only used slow 2G networks
    — so of course, Wifi backed by ADSL or cable modems running at many Mbps was faster.
    Even for later iPhones or Android smartphones, the mobile networks back in 2008/9 were
    only 3G, and were often overloaded by the sudden surge of smartphone sales.
  • Was cheaper, always. Wifi in the home or office had no marginal cost for the users, but often
    mobile networks charged more for plans with more data volume or in some cases for the
    privilege of even having any mobile data.
  • Had much greater capacity. With the exception of those on initial iPhone plans with
    unlimited data, smartphone users had to confront limited data volumes on mobile, but
    unlimited data when they connected to Wifi. And, many of the mobile operators that initially
    offered “unlimited” data with the iPhone soon backtracked.

Wifi was so important when the iPhone launched that some of the initial batch of exclusive iPhone
mobile operators bundled a free public Wifi access plan with the iPhone mobile tariff, for example O2
in the UK and AT&T in the US.

The world has changed dramatically since the dawn of the modern smartphone:

  • 4G networks have launched. This new network generation has dramatically boosted the
    quality of smartphone users’ experience.
  • Almost everyone now owns a smartphone. In mature smartphone markets, this is leading
    to concern of lower smartphone shipments affecting the revenues of smartphone makers.
  • Mobile video consumption has exploded. Smartphones have become a mainstream way
    to watch TV, to such an extent that Netflix is even trialling mobile-only tariff plans and
    OpenSignal has pioneered new mobile video experience analytics.

Yet, the perception that mobile networks are inferior to Wifi has persisted, wrongly.

OpenSignal’s mobile analytics data demonstrates that in 41% of the 80 countries OpenSignal studied
for this report – representing 33 countries – the average mobile download speed experienced by
smartphone users is now faster on mobile networks than on Wifi.

How does the UK compare?

Wi-fi remained the fastest way to go online in most countries surveyed, including the UK and Ireland.

But OpenSignal noted that because anyone could set up a wi-fi network in a location already used by others, performance could suddenly lag due to “congestion” of the airwaves involved.

By contrast, mobile networks have to license the spectrum they use, so in theory, the company said, they should deliver a more consistent experience.

In the UK, wi-fi was about 60% faster than mobile because, said the report, its mature fixed network helped data get to hotspots and on to users quickly.

The differences in network speeds were more pronounced when only the latest 4G networks were taken into account.

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