OpenSignal Blog

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.

Posted in Wifi, WifiMapper | Tagged , , | 26 Comments

A look at Italy’s high-performance networks

Today OpenSignal published its first State of Mobile Networks report for Italy, and what we found were powerful 4G services that Italian operators can be proud of. Their one limitation was reach. While Italian 4G subscribers were able to connect to LTE networks at speeds in excess of 17 Mbps, those 4G signals were available to them a little more than half the time, according to OpenSignal’s first quarter tests.

Of the four operators compared in the report, Vodafone performed exceptionally well. Vodafone tied for the fastest LTE speed with 3, and it won the awards for fastest 3G network and fastest overall speed across all networks. Most significantly, Vodafone was the big exception to Italy’s generally poor 4G coverage. Its 4G customers were able to see a signal 75% of the time.

There were bright spots in other Italian operators’ performances as well. Telecom Italia Mobile was well ahead of the national average in 4G availability with a coverage score of 68%, and it had the most responsive LTE network in terms of latency. 3 is just a few hundred kilobits away from breaking the 20 Mbps barrier on its LTE network. In addition, we measured speeds of 4.5 Mbps or greater on all four operators HSPA+ networks, putting Italy’s 3G performance well above the global average.

Coverage, though, still remains a problem if Italy wants to enter the top ranks of global 4G countries. With a national coverage average of 58%, Italy shares a distinction with many western European countries for 4G networks with limited reach. According to OpenSignal’s State of LTE report, the U.K., Spain, France, Germany and Ireland all had coverage metrics below 60%.

Be sure to check out the new Italy report, and let us know what you think.

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You’re covered: What operators mean when they talk about coverage

Last week EE CEO Marc Allera made a bold pledge. He promised to expand EE’s 4G umbrella to 95% of the U.K.’s land mass by 2020. At first glance, that may not seem very aggressive considering EE already claims its LTE network reaches 95% of the country. But what Allera is talking about here is a different kind of coverage.

EE’s 4G network currently covers 95% of the U.K. population, but that only equates to about 60% of the total geography of the country. By installing new towers, Allera wants to reach 95% geographic coverage, which means bringing into EE’s 4G footprint a lot of open space that currently doesn’t see LTE signals. EE implied that the current government-mandated definitions of coverage – which are based on population – are outdated.

EE makes a good point, and it raises some interesting questions about how the mobile industry defines coverage. OpenSignal definitely has its own views on the subject so it’s worth a discussion on the different ways of measuring coverage and what they mean to consumers. Let’s look at how these different kinds of coverage are defined:

  • Population coverage: When operators say they have a certain percentage of the population covered, what they mean is that based on a predictive model, that proportion of the country’s residential doorsteps are in range of one of its cell towers. Basically population coverage follows the general boundaries of where people live, not where they work and play. Nor does it account for all the spaces in between or measure indoor coverage.
  • Geographic coverage: If you’re measuring coverage by land mass, you’re accounting for all those roads and railways, buildings and parks, and fields and farmland outside of where people live. While networks built with population coverage in mind take in a lot of these places, they don’t take them all into account, especially in rural and remote regions of a country. Attaining a high level of geographic coverage can be difficult depending on the country. For instance, it’s a lot easier to cover the land mass of a compact and flat country like the Netherlands than it is to cover all of Chile, which is 80% mountains, or Algeria, which is 80% desert.
  • Time Coverage: This is the term OpenSignal coined for our way of measuring coverage, and you can think of it as an indicator of network availability. Essentially time coverage measures coverage from the user’s perspective, not the network’s, tracking the network’s availability wherever mobile users happen to go. While networks with high population coverage or high geographic coverage often have high time coverage, that isn’t always the case. Most U.K. operators have nearly 100% of London’s land area covered by 4G networks, but any Londoner can tell you they don’t see a 4G signal 100% of the time. It doesn’t matter whether a user is indoors or out, standing still or driving or if the network is overloaded or uncongested, time coverage measures signal availability wherever and whenever subscribers use their phones.

Obviously we’re pretty partial to time coverage for benchmarking 3G and 4G because we feel it reflects the typical user experience. Instead of mapping a network footprint and then predicting how many users fall within its borders, OpenSignal maps where users actually go and then tests to see if a particular network is available. That said, population and geographic coverage are plenty useful as metrics in their own right. A high population coverage would be an important consideration for business people traveling extensively from city to city and town to town. Meanwhile a high geographic coverage would be key to those who spend a lot of time between cities and towns or off the beaten track.

Coverage can be a tricky thing, and the metrics anyone chooses to use have to be interpreted. Your network can have the highest population, geographic or time coverage in the country, but there’s still no guarantee you’ll see a signal in the places you frequent most, whether that’s in your basement, in the corridors of your office or on the commuter train you take to work. Ultimately the coverage map that matters the most is your personal coverage map.

Posted in Comparing Coverage, Crowdsourcing, LTE, Networks, Networks' Own Coverage Maps | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

U.K. 4G networks pack a punch but have a short reach

We’re starting to see some powerful 4G networks emerge in the U.K. The problem is those 4G signals don’t find their way to that many places. In partnership with consumer advocacy group Which?, OpenSignal today released its State of Mobile Networks report for the U.K. We found more operators providing faster LTE connections, but overall LTE coverage in the U.K. leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the biggest surprises in our report, which drew on 60 million tests conducted between November and January, was the big improvement in 4G speed we measured on 3. The operator recently upgraded its LTE networks with new spectrum and capacity, and it didn’t take long for those improvements to bear fruit. We measured average 4G speeds for 3 at 18.7 Mbps, which put it in a statistical tie with Everything Everywhere for fastest U.K. network in our test period.

Photo Credit: 3

Photo Credit: 3

3, however, is still far behind EE, 02 and Vodafone in 4G coverage. 4G subscribers on 3’s networks only saw an LTE signal 39.8% of the time. EE won the 4G overage category with a metric of 60.6%, but overall the U.K. made a rather poor showing when it comes to providing highly available LTE networks. Countries in Northern Europe and North America are already achieving coverage levels greater than 70%, while in some parts of East Asia, LTE is just as widespread as 3G.

OpenSignal collaborated with Which? to take an in-depth look at the U.K. mobile scene. As part of that effort, Which? conducted a consumer satisfaction survey that gauged consumer perception of U.K. operators. You will have to wait a bit longer to read the results of the survey, to be published in the next issue of Which?’s magazine.

The performance of and consumer satisfaction with the U.K.’s mobile operators is certain to be a hot button topic as the telecommunications market there continues to consolidate. 3 and 02 are looking to merger operations shrinking the number of nationwide operators from four to three. OpenSignal recently took a look at what that merger could mean for 4G quality by looking at how consolidation has impacted other European countries.

Expect our next U.K. State of Mobile Networks report in six months, at which point a lot may have changed. If you’d like to contribute to that report, we encourage you to download OpenSignal’s iOS or Android app and start collecting data on your local operator. Meanwhile, let us know what you think of our current findings.

Posted in LTE, Networks, Reports | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mexico newcomer AT&T is wasting no time in challenging Telcel

It’s only been a year since AT&T officially entered Mexico through its acquisitions of Iusacell and Nextel, but it’s making its presence felt. In OpenSignal’s first State of Mobile Networks report for Mexico, we took a close look at the performance of Mexico’s networks in this new competitive environment. While Telcel still dominates the Mexican mobile market in may ways (not the least of which is its 70% share of all subscribers), we found a lot of evidence of AT&T building out a robust network.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mike Mozart

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mike Mozart

AT&T only launched its first LTE network in Mexico in October, but it already had 44 million people covered by its 4G umbrella at the end of 2015. In our measurements – which covered the December to February timeframe – AT&T was already matching Telcel and Movistar in LTE download speeds with an average of 10 Mbps. AT&T also in came just behind Telcel in our LTE availability measurements. Telcel 4G customers were able to see an LTE signal 65% of the time compared to 62% for AT&T customers. Finally, AT&T also landed OpenSignal’s prize for fastest overall speed — which measures average performance across all of an operator’s networks — thanks to Iusacell’s earlier investment in powerful HSPA+ systems.

The LTE race in Mexico is still ongoing, and all three operators have far to go before they have truly nationwide 4G coverage or speeds that meet the global average. But AT&T may have picked the perfect time to strike. Telcel is facing stricter regulation because of owner América Móvil’s sheer size and influence over the local telecommunications market. While AT&T is looking to grow its relatively small subscriber base, Telcel is seeking ways to shrink in order to shake the regulators from its back.

You can read the full report on OpenSignal’s website.

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Asia, it’s your turn: an in-depth look at Malaysia’s mobile sector

How Malaysia's operators stacked up in the Kuala Lumpur region (Image by OpenSignal)

How Malaysia’s operators stacked up in the Kuala Lumpur region (Image by OpenSignal)

Last week OpenSignal released its first State of Mobile Networks report for an Asia country, Malaysia. We explored the 3G and 4G performance of that country’s four major operators: Telenor’s DiGi, Axiata’s Celcom, Maxis Communications and U Mobile. This definitely won’t be our last Asian report, though.

Asia is not only the most populated region of the world, but it has a diverse range of economies and cultures, and therefore a wide range of mobile markets. Japan and South Korea join city states Singapore and Hong Kong on the cutting edge of 4G technology, while emerging economies like Thailand and Indonesia are just getting their first LTE networks off the ground. The largest countries in the world, India and China, are in Asia, and they’ve both become major actors on the global mobile stage.

Asia isn’t lacking for interesting mobile markets to explore, and OpenSignal will be examining many of them in our future public interest reports. OpenSignal can’t perform that kind of analysis without data, so if you’re a mobile subscriber in Asia (or anywhere else in the world) looking to help us plot the mobile performance of your hometown networks, be sure to download the OpenSignal app (available on iOS and Android).

In the mean time, check out our Malaysia report. We look not only at 3G and 4G trends nationally; we also zero in on the beating heart of Malaysia’s economy and industry: the metropolitan region of Kuala Lumpur.

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WifiMapper, one year later

Only one year ago WifiMapper was first released into public beta on iOS and Android – it’s so grown up now! (sniffle sniffle – hand me a tissue, will you?)

Sentimentality aside, we’re really proud of how far the app has come, and very grateful to our users and our beta-testing community for continuously adding and editing Wifi hotspots and giving us invaluable feedback on how to make the app the best free Wifi finder out there. Here are the stats from the first year.

24 March 2015 24 March 2016
Wifi database from OpenSignal app  475 million  1 billion
Hotspots suggestions by WifiMapper users  None yet! ~110,000
Free hotspots in WifiMapper 2 million 3.4 million

Those are the numbers, but how did the app change to support Wifi finding? Let’s look at the timeline.

WifiMapper Development Timeline

A picture is worth a thousand words (although a few more words would be nice too), so here are some of the screenshots of the app from different releases.

The Original (Public Beta Release)

Core WifiMapper functions – the Wifi map, list, details page, editing function were already formed in the public beta release of WifiMapper on iOS. At this point, paid hotspots were still in the app by default. You can also see one of the tour designs before it was implemented, with the “Lorem ipsum” text.

WifiMapper free hotspot details pageWifiMapper paid hotspot details page

WifiMapper tour screen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Android, there was the Wifi map and list, and you could auto-connect to Wifi hotspots in range. There was also a simple version of the Wifi details page.

WifiMapper on Android Public Beta hotspot map

WifiMapper Android Public Beta Map and List

WiifiMapper Public Beta Details page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WifiMapper Launch

The app changed a lot between the public beta release and the launch for both apps. On WifiMapper iOS (see first two screenshots), the layout of the details page was optimized and the app was changed to have only free hotspots by default (as finding the best free Wifi was, and is, the point). WifiMapper Android’s launch (last two screenshots) saw the implementation of the classic WifiMapper designs and features, as well as the really cool Android-only Wifi history page.

WifiMapper Launch map and listWifiMapper Launch hotspot details page

WifiMapper Android Launch history page

WifiMapper Android Launch details page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WifiMapper Android Sign in with Google + and EmailWifiMapper iOS sign in page (Facebook and email)Email Registration, version 1.1

Version 1.1 saw a change in how you could sign into WifiMapper. Previously, the app only had the option of signing in with Facebook (iOS) or Google+, but that changed here with the addition of an email option.

Filters and Hotspot Groups, version 1.2

While your bank might have free Wifi, you are unlikely to go there on your lunch break. Instead, you’ll probably prefer to find the best local cafe. To make the map and the list more usable, in version 1.2 we added place icons to Wifi hotspots and filters that could pull out the most relevant places on the map and the list. If you also have a subscription to a Wifi network such as Fon, you could add these with the “More hotspot providers” option (which, as you can see from the beta-test of the design, used to be called “Include hotspot groups”). ( Screenshots are from iOS only)

WifiMapper iOS map place icons

WifiMapper iOS filters page

WifIMapper Hotspot providers beta screen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaderboards, version 1.3, Favorites & Password sharing, version 1.4

Who doesn’t like a little competition? To appreciate all contributions of local “Wifi Wisdom”, we wanted to reward our users in the new leaderboards of version 1.3. Version 1.4 (currently only on iOS, soon on beta for Android) saw favorites and password sharing implemented. The favorites feature is a prelude to our offline maps, where you can save your WifiMapper Android Leaderboardsfavourite hotspots for Wifimapper Android Holiday editionfuture reference, while the password makes connecting faster – as you don’t have to ask anyone or find the wifi chalkboard.

A little after Leaderboards were released on Android, we also did a fun holiday “Easter egg” for the winter season (that’s an oxymoron, I know). (Screenshots from Android only)

Offline Maps

For version 1.5, offline maps is the next big feature that we’re planning. We’ve been working on it for months and we look forward to bringing WifiMapper to new heights. When you travel you can stay better connected, and you’ll have an offline reference that could help you find the best wifi in a city and the best cities for free wifi. We’ll need lots of help making sure the app is seamless, so please, join our beta program and help out. Thanks! We look forward to hearing from you.

(…. if you haven’t tried WifiMapper and want to get in on the free Wifi awesomeness and join the community of Wifi whizzes, here’s where to download the app on iOS and Android).

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Data deep dive: Will the merger of O2 and 3 impact U.K. 4G quality?

With O2 and 3 in the throes of a merger, there’s been a lot of discussion over how the combination of two of the U.K.’s major operators would impact mobile competition. Will reducing the U.K. mobile market to three operators trigger price hikes for consumers? Will consolidation mean less innovation? Will U.K. operators have less incentive to invest in their mobile networks if they have fewer competitors?

We don’t know the answer to all of those question, but OpenSignal is uniquely qualified to address the last of them, as we collect data on mobile networks in more than a hundred countries across the globe. We thought it would be interesting to see if the number of operators in a country had any impact on the quality and performance of its mobile networks. Specifically we looked at 4G, because LTE represents the latest wave of mobile investment, and we looked at major countries in the European Union as they share the greatest similarities to the U.K. in terms of spectrum, regulation and mobile pricing. We took a snapshot of the current market conditions, using data collected in the three months between November 1 and January 31.

The plot chart below shows what we found. Average LTE speed is measured on the horizontal axis and LTE coverage measured on the vertical. Countries that have only three major operators are represented by triangles, while countries with four are squares.

Chart created by Teresa Murphy-Skvorzova (Data source: OpenSignal)

Chart created by Teresa Murphy-Skvorzova (Data source: OpenSignal)

As you can see there doesn’t appear to be any correlation between number of operators and investment in 4G. The Netherlands and Hungary offer two of the most robust LTE networks in Europe, but the former country has four operators while the latter has three. Both the country with the slowest LTE speeds (Germany) and the country with the worst coverage (Ireland) hosted only three operators. But most of the worst performers in our chart were major economies in Western Europe – the U.K., France and Italy – all of which are four-operator markets.

Oddly if there is a pattern we can detect in this plot chart, it’s that a country’s population seems to have a much bigger impact on LTE investment than its number of operators. Smaller northern and eastern European countries, for the most part, have gotten the jump on the EU’s major powers when it comes to building out far-reaching and technologically superior networks. It looks like the best way to tank your country’s LTE performance is to boost your population up to 50 million.

Of course, that’s only one interpretation. A number of factors can influence the coverage and speed averages of any individual country. For instance, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries tend to have a high degree of urbanization, which helps boost their coverage numbers (the more closely packed people are the more likely they will fall under a cell tower’s signal umbrella). Meanwhile, eastern European countries tend to have fewer 4G subscribers, which in turn boosts average LTE speeds (there are fewer people with whom to share 4G capacity).

Keep in mind we’re not saying that the merger of O2 and 3 won’t have an impact on the U.K.’s 4G landscape. Nor are we saying there won’t be any competitive or consumer repercussions from the merger. We’re only saying what our data shows us: in Europe, the number of operators competing in a market doesn’t have any bearing on the performance of its 4G networks.

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Forget crowdsourcing, Plume Labs tries flock-sourcing with connected pigeons

There are several apps out there crowdsourcing environmental data using smartphones on the ground (our app WeatherSignal among them), but Plume Labs has started collecting pollution data directly from the sky with the help of some feathered friends. This week, the Pigeon Air Patrol took flight over London. Each squadron member flies with a backpack containing a nitrogen dioxide sensor, which collects air pollution and ozone level data as the pigeons make their way from the city center to Northeast London.

Pigeon Air

Plume Labs, a global air quality monitor, created the project with the help of DigitasLBi London pigeon racer Brian Woodhouse. If it sounds like a publicity stunt, that’s because it largely is, though certainly for a good cause. The project lasts only three days, and while Plume does expect to collect some useful data about air quality in London skies, the main purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness about air pollution and draw attention to Plume’s other crowdsourced data collection efforts (those involving humans, not birds). Twitter UK is lending a hand, helping the London community virtually interact with the project through the handle @pigeonair.

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OpenSignal helps Cambridge hunt down its pesky notspots

Cambridge wants to become a hyper-connected U.K. city, providing robust internet access county wide at both the public and private level. In order to become that hyper-connected city, Cambridge first needs to find those places where wireless and wireline access needs improvement or simply isn’t available. That’s where OpenSignal is lending a hand.

OpenSignal is working with Cambridge Ahead to help the local community test mobile and Wifi network availability and speeds. By enlisting the help of everyday residents, Cambridge Ahead hopes to crowdsource a detailed map of the connectivity infrastructure of the city and surrounding areas. In particular, it wants to identify all of the “notspots” where getting a signal or an internet connection is impossible.

Cambridge Ahead is enlisting the local residents and workers to become CambsNotspotters, ferreting out these data dead zones. In this interview with the BBC, one of our co-founders Sam Westwood explains how Notspotters can use the OpenSignal app to perform their sleuthing, while Connecting Cambridge chair Faye Holland details the scope and aims of the project:

While Cambridge is working with OpenSignal for the mobile component, it’s also teamed up with Think Broadband to test home and business broadband connections. The organization is also encouraging Notspotters to log into free public Wifi services offered in public buildings and by U.K. provider The Cloud.

Posted in Crowdsourcing, OpenSignal app, Press, Wifi | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment