OpenSignal Blog

What your smartphone can expect at the Olympics

Photo courtesy of Agencia Brasil

Photo courtesy of Agencia Brasil

Today OpenSignal released its latest State of Mobile Networks report for Brazil, just in time for the Olympics. If you’re planning on making the trek south of the equator for the spectacle of the Olympiad, chances are you’ll have your smartphone in tow – as will millions of other Olympic attendees, organizers, athletes and ordinary Rio residents. Hopefully we can offer a little insight into what kind of mobile data performance to expect.

First off, let’s look at speed. Vivo took OpenSignal’s award for fastest 4G network with an average download speed of 18.6 Mbps, an impressive speed for South America and well above the 13.5 Mbps global average from our most recent State of LTE report. Fellow operators Claro, Oi and TIM, however, fell short of that average. We measured speeds below 12 Mbps for all three of them.

In terms of 4G availability, all four major operators could use some improvement. Rather than measure geographic coverage, our availability metric tracks the proportion of time subscribers have access to a particularly network. In Brazil, 4G subscribers could connect to an LTE signal only about half the time. When LTE wasn’t available, those subscribers had to contend with 3G network speeds, which ranged between 1.1 Mbps to 2.4 Mbps.

The good news is that 4G signals were much more readily available in Rio de Janeiro, where the games will be hosted. Nextel (which offers 4G services in Rio but not nationwide) tied with Vivo for our 4G availability award. Their customers were able to connect to LTE around 75% of the time. We measured much better 4G consistency for Claro and TIM in Rio as well. Both had 4G availability scores 10% higher than their nationwide averages.

Of course, these numbers represent the typical performance of Brazil’s networks as experienced by the typical consumer. The Olympics are far from a typical event. While we definitely see evidence that Brazilian operators have improved their mobile data networks since the FIFA World Cup in 2014, an event the size of the Olympics would place a major strain on any operator’s network, no matter how well prepared they are. And though Brazil’s operators fared through the World Cup quite well, that event was spread out over many cities with matches staggered over a month. The Olympics is two and half weeks of continuous events focused in a single city. Brazil’s operators have their work cut out for them.

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The end is nigh (for 2G that is)

The days of 2G voice calls are numbered at Verizon Wireless – 1260 days to be exact. Verizon last week told FierceWireless it has set a shutdown date for its CDMA 1X network, which still carries the majority of its voice traffic. That date is Dec. 31, 2019. If you still have a 2G/3G only phone – an increasing rarity these days in the U.S. – you still have plenty of time to upgrade to a 4G device, and Verizon has said it might extend that date if there are still a lot of 4G holdouts in three years’ time. But you’ve been put on notice: 2G networks won’t be around forever.

Verizon isn’t the only one bidding adieu to 2G. AT&T will begin shuttering its GSM network in less than six months, and operators around the world have announced similarly aggressive 2G sunset plans. Why are all of these operators mothballing perfectly good voice networks? The answer is spectrum. They need more of it to feed consumers’ growing hunger for data services, and with limited amount of new airwaves becoming free, they’re cannibalizing their 2G networks for more 4G capacity. They still need to offer voice, but new voice-over-LTE services can do that job much more efficiently than any 2G network.

The main reason 2G is sticking around so long is not for mobile phones but for the industrial internet of things. There are 2G radios embedded in every manner of contraption from shipping containers to soda dispensers to farm combines, and they get replaced far less often than the typical consumer device. The last remnants of 2G networks won’t be serving phones; they’ll be serving the world of machines.

2G, we’re going to miss you. It was 2G that really kicked off the mobile revolution around the world, making mobile service widespread and affordable to the majority of the world’s population. But a market can only support so many generations of mobile technology simultaneously, and it’s looking like that number adds up to three generations. Right before the launch of 4G in the late 2000s, we saw the large-scale shutdown of the remaining 1G (AMPS) networks in the U.S. It’s likely no coincidence that 2G is going offline right before the expected global rollout of 5G services.

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What’s in a Megahertz: How spectrum impacts our 4G experience

If you’ve read any of OpenSignal’s reports, you’ll notice that we often point out the type and amount of spectrum mobile operators use. While those particulars might seem like arcane technical details, spectrum can tell you a lot about how powerful a network’s connections are or how far its signals can reach. We felt a primer on spectrum’s role in the mobile network might be useful.

Spectrum, which is measured in megahertz, is the fundamental building block for every generation of mobile networking from analogue networks to 4G. But after the 4G revolution kicked off with the advent of LTE, spectrum has become particularly important for creating powerful mobile data networks. You can think of spectral frequencies as lanes on a highway. Just as a highway with more lanes can handle more cars, a network with more spectrum can handle more connections or more mobile traffic. The total traffic a network can carry at any given moment is known as its capacity, and networks with higher capacity generally support higher speeds. But just like highways, networks are shared infrastructure. If there are too many users on them vying for capacity, everyone is forced to slow down. That’s one of the major trade-offs in mobile networking.

Frequencies are like lanes on a highway. Even networks with lots of capacity will get congested if there are lots of users. (Photo by Flickr user Thomanication)

Frequencies are like lanes on a highway. Even networks with lots of capacity will get congested if there are lots of users. (Photo by Flickr user Thomanication)

For instance, let’s say we have an LTE cell tower with 100 Mbps of total capacity. Theoretically that tower could supply a single user with a fat 100 Mbps connection or it could divide that capacity among 10 users, simultaneously providing each of them a 10 Mbps connection. If you double the number of users to 20, those connection speeds drop to 5 Mbps and so forth. But suppose we double the amount of spectrum used by our cell tower? We’d wind up doubling our capacity, and suddenly we could supply those 20 users each with a 10 Mbps connection.

Operators constantly engage in a balancing act between speed and capacity as the more users they have on their networks the more they compete for resources. If their networks become too congested, they often look for more spectrum to increase their capacity, which not only allows them to support more users but improve the performance of everybody’s 4G connection. If no spectrum is available for the taking, they still have options. They can add capacity into the network by building more cell towers, which essentially allows them to use the same spectrum in more locations. That’s why we’re starting to hear more about the concept of “small cells” lately. By creating ever denser clusters of cells, operators can cram more users onto their networks in high-demand areas without sacrificing connection speeds.

Those are the basics of how spectrum impacts networks, but I should point out that not all spectrum is created equal. There are a few other things you’ll need to know about the frequencies powering our mobile networks:

  • Lower is better: You often hear operators touting the low-frequency spectrum they’re using, and they have reason to brag. Lower frequencies, such as those in the 700 MHz or 800 MHz bands, propagate further. That means signals travel greater distances in rural areas and they punch deeper into buildings in urban areas. Low frequencies don’t offer any more capacity than higher band frequencies — a megahertz of 700 MHz spectrum supports the same amount of data as a megahertz of 2600 MHz spectrum — but operators use lower frequencies to improve their network coverage and provide a more consistent 4G experience.
  • LTE-Advanced: An operator’s spectrum holdings are usually all over the frequency chart, but you can only deploy an LTE network over a single frequency band. The result is most operators have built two, three, sometimes four separate LTE networks. Using LTE-Advanced techniques, operators can tie those networks together, allowing devices to connect to multiple 4G frequencies simultaneously. This not only creates a unified network but can tremendously boost the maximum speed at which a device can connect to that network.
  • Technology is often a limitation: An operator may have gobs and gobs of spectrum, but in many cases the network or handset technology isn’t yet available for them to fully access it.

The type, amount and quality of spectrum an operator owns clearly has a big say in how its 4G networks will perform, and we’re seeing all kinds of different spectrum scenarios play out around the world. In Europe and East Asia, LTE-Advanced is already having a big impact, driving average download speeds in many countries well beyond 20 Mbps, as measured in OpenSignal’s February State of LTE report.

But we’re also seeing the more subtle effects of spectrum’s impact in different parts of the world. New 4G networks in South America and Eastern Europe are debuting with some impressively fast speeds, even though the operators building them have limited spectrum portfolios. Their networks, however, are still lightly loaded with users. As those networks get more congested with subscribers, speeds will slow down. That’s the problem some of LTE’s earliest adopters are now facing. In the U.S., Japan and Sweden operators have a lot of spectrum but they also have a lot of users vying for that capacity. Consequently all three of those countries have fallen far down the global ranking charts in 4G speed.

Some operators have used new spectrum to address specific weaknesses in their networks. 3 in the U.K. and T-Mobile in the U.S. both recently began building new LTE networks in low-band frequencies for the express purpose of boosting their coverage. Meanwhile technology has proven a hindrance to Telstra’s ambitions in Australia. It’s deployed the LTE-Advanced networks that tie together 100 MHz of 4G airwaves, but none of its customers can access the full power of that network since Telstra is still waiting for handset technology to catch up.

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Entel wins big in OpenSignal’s first Peru report

Entel may be tiny compared to Peruvian mobile powers Movistar and Claro, but it has  gotten the jump on its larger competitors when it comes to 4G, according to OpenSignal’s new State of Mobile Networks report for Peru. For this report we focused solely on Peru’s relatively new LTE infrastructure, drawing on 5.7 million speed and signal tests conducted in the first quarter. We found that Entel came out on top in all three of our test categories – often by a large margin.

Entel 4G customers were able to access LTE download speeds averaging 19 Mbps. They also had the most responsive connections in Peru as we measured Entel’s average 4G latency at 31 milliseconds (low latency means webpages start loading more quickly and real-time communications apps perform better). The most impressive award Entel won, however, was in 4G availability.

Our availability metric tracks the proportion of time subscribers have access to particular network. In Entel’s case, 4G customers were able to see an LTE signal 82% of the time, an exceptional figure not just for Peru but for all of the Americas. To put that in perspective, only 33 of the 182 operators we tracked in our last global State of LTE report were able to supply a 4G connection more than 80% of the time. Peru obviously is still in a state of 4G flux as operators complete their LTE rollouts and bring more of their customers over to 4G services, but if Entel can maintain this high level of network availability it will be in a rare operator club indeed.

Movistar by no means performed badly in our measurements – it was merely outshone by upstart Entel. The Telefónica subsidiary had an impressive 4G availability metric of 69%, and its LTE download average of 14 Mbps was just above the global average. América Móvil’s Claro, however, clearly has a lot of room for improvement. Its LTE speed of 4.7 Mbps more resembles the typical 3G experience than a 4G experience, but Claro maintained a respectable LTE availability metric of 59%.

The big disparity in operator 4G capabilities is likely a reflection of the spectrum situation in Peru. While Movistar and Entel took home big hunks of new spectrum in Peru’s first 4G auction, giving them the building blocks for their LTE networks, Claro has been forced to cobble together its LTE network from old 2G spectrum.

You can find the full Peru report here, complete with interactive charts and our full analysis. As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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GSMA ranks the world’s access to the mobile internet (with a little help from OpenSignal)

While OpenSignal publishes plenty of its own reports, we occasionally contribute our data to other research projects focusing on global mobile trends. Last week the GSM Association launched just such a research initiative, and it’s quite the undertaking. Called the Mobile Connectivity Index, the extensive report attempts to categorize the mobile internet adoption, readiness and performance of 134 countries.

The Mobile Connectivity Index ranks 134 countries in terms of access to the mobile internet (Source: GSMA)

The Mobile Connectivity Index ranks 134 countries in terms of access to the mobile internet (Source: GSMA)

In compiling the report, GSMA Intelligence drew upon OpenSignal’s mobile speed and latency data, which we collect from millions of users in OpenSignal’s crowdsourced community. But speed test and network responsiveness data only make up a portion of this ambitious index. The index methodology takes into account not just the telecom infrastructure built in a country but economic factors like rate-plan affordability, demographic factors like literacy and cultural factors like gender equality that make mobile internet services accessible (or inaccessible) to a broad population.

For instance, the Connectivity Index’s infrastructure calculations put significant weight on our download speed and latency measurement, but it places almost as much emphasis on supporting factors like access to electricity and the number of servers per million inhabitants. After all, having a fast and responsive 3G or 4G connection means little if you don’t have a way to charge your phone or have access to content in your native language.

Consequently, a lot of different metrics went into calculating this index, ranging from economic data collected by the World Bank and demographic data tallied by UNESCO. The end result, though, is an index number applied to each country that rates its overall level of mobile accessibility. Australia was at the top of the index with a score of 84.7.

OpenSignal recently published our first State of Mobile Networks report for Australia, and we also found that the land down under was among the global leaders in mobile broadband speeds and availability, though by no means first. The GSMA, however, found that mobile infrastructure wasn’t the determining factor in calculating Australia’s world-leading index score. In fact, several other countries including Denmark, the Netherlands, the U.S. and South Korea beat out Australia in infrastructure. Instead, it was Australia’s superior marks in mobile service affordability, consumer readiness and locally relevant content that pushed it to the top of the list. Conversely Afghanistan had the fifth worst rating on the index, not because it had the most underdeveloped mobile networks. Rather, Afghanistan’s low rating comes from consumer readiness issues ranging from adult literacy to gender inequality.

Countries with the highest Mobile Connectivity Index scores (source: GSMA)

Countries with the highest Mobile Connectivity Index scores (source: GSMA)

The goal of the index is to help the telecom industry to get to universal internet access across the globe by identifying all of the different economic and social levers that can be pulled beyond merely building new networks. It’s also intended to be an indicator of where a country should be in its mobile internet development. For instance, most sub-Saharan countries in Africa have low mobile internet adoption rates, which in most cases line up with their lower connectivity index scores. Meanwhile, there are several countries ranging from China to Poland to Costa Rica that have much higher mobile internet adoption rates than countries with similar index scores. The GSMA calls these countries “fast transitioners,” and in many cases they’ve managed to overcome limitations in infrastructure by making mobile services more affordable or maintaining social institutions that encourage broader internet adoption.

In any case, the index is a fascinating report reflecting an ambitious approach to solving one of the world’s biggest problems, the digital divide. We at OpenSignal are proud to be a part of it.

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Argentina’s infant networks grow to adolescence

It’s been six months since our last Argentina State of Mobile Networks report came out, and over that half year OpenSignal has measured some noticeable differences in Argentina’s 4G performance – but they’re not all improvements. In our new Argentina report released today, we found that Argentina’s fledgling LTE networks have started to spread their wings, providing signal to a greater number of Argentines. But we’re also starting to see Argentina’s already rather sluggish LTE networks slow down further.

Buenos Aires at night (Photo Credit: Flickr user Rodrigo Paredes)

Buenos Aires at night (Photo Credit: Flickr user Rodrigo Paredes)

Once again, Movistar was the operator to beat in 4G during the first quarter. It had the highest LTE availability of the three major Argentina operators as its customers were able to connect to its 4G network 63% of the time. Claro and Personal still have some ground to make up for with 4G availability metrics of 41% and 51% respectively, but both have managed to improve their 4G reach since last year. In 4G speed, Movistar and Personal were statistically tied with download averages between 9 and 10 Mbps, while Movistar also took the prize for overall speed across 3G and 4G networks.

From a global perspective, though, Argentina’s LTE speeds and availability aren’t much to brag about. With the typical LTE connection measuring just 9 Mbps, Argentina is well below the global average of 13.5 Mbps, and in a comparison between the major countries of South America, Argentina falls lagged behind most of its continental peers in both coverage and speed.

What’s more, Argentina’s speeds seem to be slowing down, not speeding up. In November average 4G download speeds ranged from 9.7 to 11.3 Mbps among the three operators. In the first quarter only one operator barely managed to cross the 10 Mbps threshold. Argentina’s LTE networks weren’t that powerful to begin with, utilizing limited amounts of spectrum, but as 4G services start to mature, it appears more customers are competing for that limited bandwidth. Operators will likely solve that problem as soon as they expand LTE into new frequency bands.

You can find the full report here, complete with interactive charts and a more detailed analysis of our data. Let us know what you think below in the comments.

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Keeping up with Australia’s rapidly evolving 4G networks

For our latest State of Mobile Networks report, OpenSignal turns its attention to a new continent. Australia might be geographically distant from Europe and the Americas, but it’s certainly no backwater when it comes to mobile technology. Its operators are so far ahead in deploying the newest and most powerful 4G technologies, that they’re often waiting for the rest of the mobile industry to catch up.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nicki Mannix

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nicki Mannix

We turned our eye on Australia’s three major operators – Optus, Telstra and Vodafone – to see how their networks stacked up to one another and the world at large. We found some of the fastest LTE speeds in the world with Telstra leading the pack, averaging 23.6 Mbps. We also found widespread LTE connectivity, though when it came to availability the three operators were more evenly matched. Telstra and Vodafone were statistically tied for first place, each providing an LTE signal more than 75% of the time.

Even though Australia’s 4G performance is already impressive, it’s only going to improve. Telstra and Optus have deployed LTE-Advanced networks that just a few mobile devices can fully access today. When we looked at the results from some of those smartphones — for instance the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge — we saw a big boost over typical Australian 4G speeds. This year, Telstra has promised to launch an LTE service that will support theoretical speeds of 1 Gbps even though no phone has yet been built that can tap it. If anything Australia is too far ahead of the curve. By the time devices emerge to support the full capabilities of its networks, we may be well into the 5G age.

You can read the full Australia report here. As always let us know what you think in the comments below.

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Background data collection in our iOS app – settings explained

Our new iOS app is finally here! We’ve released a new version (Version 3.0) of OpenSignal based on feedback that we’ve had from our users, including a sleek new design and more information points throughout the app to explain how the app works.

The coverage maps and network comparisons in the OpenSignal app are 100% crowdsourced from our users. The app collects this information from the user’s device, and we process it and combine it with data from all of the app users to build the independent coverage maps shown the app, based on these real measurements – not models and predictions.

Background data contribution

We are really excited about one new feature in this iOS update that has been available on Android for some time, which allows iPhone users to now contribute data to the OpenSignal crowdsourcing project even when they’re not using the app, i.e. in the ‘background’. This means that iOS users can contribute even more data to help us compare networks and map network performance.

Background data collection does require using GPS, so that we can be sure of the location of the readings the app takes. As ever, we know that some users might not want to contribute data or use their GPS in the background, and that’s why we make the app flexible, and allow you to turn off data contribution if you’d like to.

Default settingsDefault settings

By default, background data collection is already set to off (see the screenshot), and so the app won’t collect any information or use the GPS in the background unless you go to the settings and turn it on.

It’s also possible to turn off data contribution even when the app is open as well – a feature that has always been in the app.

We’re happy our iOS users can finally contribute as much data as our Android app users. If you have any questions about background data collection (or anything about the app and how it works) please contact us on ios@opensignal.com.

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A look at the 4G performance of LTE’s birthplace

For our latest OpenSignal State of Mobile Networks report, we decided to do something a little different. Instead of focusing on a single country, we examined a whole region, namely the Nordic countries. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have a long history of mobile network innovation. The first LTE networks were born in Stockholm and Oslo in 2009, and soon after the entire region took a leading role in deploying the technology.

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Given that history, you would expect the Nordics to have broadly deployed 4G networks, and that’s exactly what we found in the first quarter. In three of the four countries, 4G subscribers were able to see an LTE signal more than 80% of the time, while in Denmark coverage was still an impressive 72%.

When it comes to 4G speeds, though, Europe’s far north isn’t quite the force it once was. All of the Nordic countries had average LTE download speeds faster than the global average, but Finland, Norway and Sweden can’t match the new 20-30 Mbps networks we’re starting to see in East Asia and other parts of Europe. Denmark was the big exception. It averaged 4G speeds in the 25 Mbps range, led by operator TDC.

In the report, we compare the overall performance of each of the Nordic states before diving into the specific results of the operators in each country. We found that while 4G speeds may have fallen off, 3G speeds are unparalleled. We also saw  the impact of the region’s multi-faceted network sharing agreements, which produced a lot of closely matched results between operators.

You can check out the report here, and as always, let us know what you think in the comments below.

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802.11ac: It’s still hard to find, but it’s fast

Three years ago a new Wifi technology debuted promising breakneck speeds that would put our old Wifi technologies to shame. Called 802.11ac, this new networking standard was supposed, at a minimum, to double the speeds over older 802.11n technologies and eventually support multi-gigabit connections. OpenSignal felt it was time to take a look at just how far 802.11ac has come and whether it’s delivering on those promises.

Fortunately we don’t have to make wild guesses. In addition to collecting billions of measurements from cellular networks, OpenSignal’s crowdsourcing app collects plenty of data on Wifi connections, and our WifiMapper app plots the location and quality of public hotspots and private access points around the world. We’re able to drill down into measurements our users have taken from millions of Wifi enabled devices around the world.

We looked at how widespread 802.11ac has become by tracking the amount of time our smartphone users spent connected 802.11ac networks as opposed to other types of Wifi links. The chart below shows the top 10 countries ranked by 802.11ac penetration. The percentages represent each 802.11 technology’s share of overall Wifi connections on smartphones. So in the case of the U.S. , 7.9% of Wifi sessions we tracked were connected via 802.11ac networks and 77.8% of Wifi sessions went over 802.11n networks.

This chart shows the proportion of WIfi sessions made through 802.11ac and 802.11n connections. The remaining percentages are connections made through other 802.11 technologies. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

This chart shows the proportion of Wifi sessions made through 802.11ac and 802.11n connections. The remaining percentages are connections made through other 802.11 technologies. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

As you can see even in the countries ranked highest, 802.11ac connections are still few and far between. Norway had the highest percentage, but 802.11ac still only accounted for 11.4% of Wifi session time. And those numbers quickly fell off. Outside of our top 10 countries, 802.11ac accounts for less than 5% of Wifi use.

It’s important to keep in mind that in order to make a connection both the smartphone and the router have to support the new Wifi standard, so these numbers don’t give us any kind of absolutes about the number of 802.11ac devices out there. But they do give a fairly good indication of how prevalent the technology is becoming in our everyday mobile lives. Right now 802.11ac isn’t making a big impact, but if the take-up of its predecessor technology is any indication, it could make a much bigger impact quite soon. As the chart shows, 802.11n now accounts for well more than 60% of all Wifi use in the more advanced wireless countries in the world. That’s quite impressive considering the first certified 802.11n phones only appeared in 2010.

Next we looked at average 802.11ac speeds globally, and what we found probably isn’t that surprising. The average 802.11ac connection was at least twice as fast as any connection on an earlier generation technology. That average was 32.4 Mbps, which is hardly pushing gigabit speeds, but then again, the term “gigabit wireless” was always a bit of red herring. While the 802.11ac specification does include configurations that could theoretically attain speeds over 6 Gbps, those types of configurations aren’t in our smartphones. Our single-antenna handheld devices never even get near a gigabit. But the biggest factor impacting speed isn’t the technical standard used; it’s the broadband connection at the other end of the Wifi access point.

This chart shows the average internet speeds OpenSignal smartphone users measured over different types of Wifi connections. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

This chart shows the average internet speeds OpenSignal smartphone users measured over different types of Wifi connections. (Graphic by Teresa Murphy)

Even if you were to establish a 400 Mbps connection between your phone and your router, if your broadband connection maxes out at 25 Mbps, then the fastest internet connection you could see would be 25 Mbps. While Wifi technology certainly plays a part in the speeds we’re measuring, the quality of wired broadband speed is likely playing a bigger one. If you’re going to go through the trouble of upgrading to an 802.11ac router, you likely already have a fast broadband connection to back it up.

One thing that did surprise us in our data was that 802.11a actually came out faster than 802.11n in our measurements, even though the latter is a newer generation technology capable of much higher bandwidth. The explanation likely involves 802.11a’s broad adoption in enterprise networking. Big businesses tend to keep their internal Wifi networks private, to manage interference well and to have powerful fiber links to the internet. That could translate into a much better Wifi experience even if the technology used is a bit dated.

Finally, we tallied up all of the devices in our database that connected to an 802.11ac network and found 124 different smartphone models that supported the technology. There’s no question that the 802.11ac is becoming a common feature in new phones. The device that made the most use of that feature? That would be the Nexus 6P. Google’s latest Android phone spent an astonishing 45% of its time on Wifi connected via 802.11ac links. Apparently the type of tech-savvy consumer that invests in Google’s Android showcase phone is the same type of consumer that invests in an 802.11ac network.

This certainly won’t be our last look at 802.11ac and other Wifi technologies. We’re keeping a close eye on 802.11ac’s progress around the globe, and as we gather more and better data on Wifi in general we plan to offer up more insights. We encourage you to lend us a hand by downloading our WifiMapper app. Not only will it help you identify Wifi hotspots in your area, but it will help us map out the global Wifi landscape.

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