Wi-Fi is still faster than mobile, but that could change

By James Rogerson 4 December 2018

Opensignal report

Opensignal has just published a report dubbed ‘The State of Wi-Fi vs Mobile Network Experience as 5G Arrives’, in which it looked at the speed of mobile networks compared to Wi-Fi and found that in the UK our mobile data speeds still can’t match those of Wi-Fi on average.

That might not sound surprising, but in 33 countries – 41% of the 80 analysed – mobile data was faster. And if we look just at 4G (rather than 3G) then 50 countries (63% of them) offer faster mobile than Wi-Fi speeds.

As reports go this one is fairly credible, having used 7,788,215 devices to take 63,223,150,678 measurements between August 5th and November 3rd, 2018. Those stats are global and it hasn’t broken them down by country, so we can’t say how many measurements were taken in the UK, but it’s likely that a lot were.

In fact, there’s not much detailed information on the UK specifically, but the report does say that average Wi-Fi download speeds in the country are 30.8Mbps according to its tests, compared to 19.0Mbps on mobile.

4G can’t match Wi-Fi but 5G might

Opensignal report

That, unfortunately, doesn’t separate out 3G and 4G, so taking 3G out of the equation would probably bring mobile a bit closer to Wi-Fi, but not much. 4G coverage is now widespread and most networks don’t offer average 4G speeds much higher than 19Mbps anyway.

According to the OpenSignal Mobile Networks Update, October 2018, only EE approaches average Wi-Fi speeds, with an average 4G download speed of 28.9Mbps, which is still lower, and the next closest is Vodafone with a much lower 21.92Mbps.

So the situation isn’t likely to change much in the UK even as 4G becomes more available, but looking further ahead it might, as OpenSignal notes that 5G could prove a game-changer.

The report acknowledges that 5G will offer vastly improved speeds and capacity over 4G, as well as more spectrum choices. It further says that “the pace of innovation is faster in the mobile industry than in almost any other industry” which in turn means that 5G could “leapfrog” Wi-Fi in many countries, particularly those where operators are slow to roll out full fibre to the premises connections.

Indeed, 5G could be enough of an upgrade that many users ditch conventional broadband in favour of 5G FWA (Fixed Wireless Access) according to a recent report from Ovum.

However, Ofcom’s report states that Wi-Fi will on the whole continue to co-exist with mobile, especially as costs are likely to remain lower and capacity is often less limited than mobile base stations in high traffic areas.

The changing role of Wi-Fi

Openreach also highlights some assumptions about Wi-Fi that mobile networks need to re-evaluate going forward. It argues that devices will increasingly be able to connect to Wi-Fi and mobile networks at the same time in order to maximize speeds, and as such assumptions that only one network type will be used at once should be “shelved”.

Additionally, mobile networks need to ensure coverage is good inside buildings, as many customers may opt for mobile data over Wi-Fi even when both are available. And networks should also be smarter about Wi-Fi offload strategies, according to the report.

So, in conclusion, if you care about speed then right now you’re probably better off on Wi-Fi than using mobile data where possible (though this will vary from network to network) but going forward that balance could shift – at least for a few years until fibre broadband catches up with 5G.

And while some people may well replace their standard broadband with a 5G connection, Wi-Fi probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Rather, if anything it might become more complementary, with people getting serious speeds by combining a 4G or 5G signal with a Wi-Fi one.

Download the report here: The State of Wi-Fi vs Mobile Network Experience as 5G Arrives

About James Rogerson

Sub-Editor at 5G.co.uk

James is sub-editor at both 5G.co.uk and TechRadar. Also works as a researcher/ technical writer for 5G.co.uk and several other websites including TechRadar, T3, Smart TV Radar, 3G.co.uk with work on the web, in print and on TV.

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