Though we may be in the era of fast 4G connections, Wifi still plays a significant role in our mobile connectivity. We spend a lot of time connected to Wifi networks at home, work and at public hotspots. But just how much time exactly do we spend on Wifi? I decided to find out by digging down into OpenSignal’s U.S. data.
I looked at our connection data for the four U.S. national operators in the first quarter of 2017 and found that our smartphone users spent roughly half of their time connected to Wifi versus cellular networks. But there were some differences between the subscribers of the different operators, as you can see in the chart below.
Verizon subscribers spent the highest percentage time connected to Wifi at 54%, followed by AT&T (52%) and Sprint (51%), but the big standout in our data was T-Mobile. Our users were only connected to Wifi 43% of the time, indicating that the typical T-Mobile subscriber was spending far more time connected to his or her operator’s cellular networks than a typical subscriber on the other three operators.
So how do we interpret this data? It’s tempting to view these Wifi patterns through the lens of the operators’ data plans. T-Mobile and Sprint have been selling unlimited data plans for some time now, while AT&T and Verizon only recently reintroduced unlimited as an option for new subscribers. Customers that don’t have to worry about data overage charges have less incentive to seek out free or cheap Wifi connections. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the two operators with lowest time-on-Wifi scores are the ones with customer most accustomed to not counting the megabytes they consume. But that’s also a rather simplistic explanation. There are lots of reasons why one operator’s customers could be finding Wifi signals more than others.
Some operators, for instance AT&T, have built carrier Wifi networks, automatically connecting customers to hotspots whenever they’re in range. The type of customers each operator caters to could also have a big impact. Business professionals, for example, often log into workplace networks as soon as they clear their office lobbies. They’re also more likely to pay for access to dedicated Wifi access at hotels, airports and convention centers.
I should note that time spent on Wifi is not the same thing as the amount of data consumed on Wifi. Just because your phone happens to be connected to a Wifi router doesn’t mean it’s actively surfing the mobile internet. That’s one of the main reasons that Wifi connections make up such a large share of all smartphone connections. Our smartphones spend a lot of time at home and in the office passively connected to our local networks. But that passive connectivity can tell us some interesting things as well. If an operator’s customers skew young, their time on Wifi numbers will skew low. Younger folks tend to go out more, leaving the familiar embrace of their home networks. Old fogies like me, on the other hand, barely leave the house. I’m willing to bet my time on Wifi score is in the 80% range.