Here's an idea for a new operator tagline: "The most consistent wireless network." OK, so I won't win a CLIO. But as banal and unlikely to be adopted as that adage sounds, it's going to be the most important measure of a user's wireless network experience going forward.
What do I mean by 'most consistent'? Well, when you think about it, when the cellular network is at its best, data performance is about as good we need it to be: 20 Mbps (and as much as 50 Mbps), latency around 50 ms, and even dramatically improved voice quality when the stars line up for a rockin' VoLTE/HD Voice call. The best LTE experience, with all cylinders firing -- good signal, adequate channel capacity, and perhaps utilizing carrier aggregation -- rivals a typical home broadband experience, and is sufficient for most uses, including video streaming. I am also finding that the cellular network often outperforms Wi-Fi in public settings, such as hotels, coffee shops and convention centers.
But we all know that the 'reality' of wireless gets in the way. Coverage is still far from ubiquitous (as a recent weekend of college tours with my daughter in the Hudson Valley and western Massachusetts can attest). In-building signal is often inadequate. We all experience the capricious nature of the cellular experience during a typical day: unpredictable data speeds, inconsistent signal strength, and a still surprisingly high number of dropped calls or clipped conversations. Another phenomenon that is increasingly being experienced, especially in cities, is network congestion -- characterized by mystifyingly slow data speeds despite a seemingly strong signal. And wireless data prices are still relatively high, which is a purposeful limit to consumption. We know that the reason the cellular experience remains 'imperfect' (i.e. not ubiquitous, fast, and cheap) is because there is finite spectrum, and wireless networks are very complex and expensive to build and maintain.
The marketing of 4G continues to focus on coverage and speed: 'fastest', 'most powerful', and the like. But I think the next phase of differentiation, if a sexy way can be found to market it, should be around consistency and quality. Put simply, what percentage of the time does the subscriber experience LTE in the way it's supposed to be experienced? My minimum, or "ante", threshold, consists of ALL of the below (I fully recognize that there are many factors governing this experience, many of them outside the operator's control):
- Minimum 3 bars of signal strength
- Solid voice quality, and over time, this metric would include availability of HD Voice/VoLTE
- Minimum of 10 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps for upload. Upload speeds are, particularly, context dependent, for example more needed at venues such as stadiums where users are sharing a lot of pictures.
- Latency of less than 100 milliseconds, and preferably 50 milliseconds (ms)
Wouldn't you take Carrier A, delivering these metrics, say, 75 percent of the time, to Carrier B providing occasional super-fast LTE speeds but only meeting the consistency threshold 50 percent of the time?
One more facet of this 'consistency' experience is the relationship between cellular and Wi-Fi. Users increasingly experiencing data that either doesn't load or is very slow when their phone automatically defaults to a known Wi-Fi hotspot, particularly outside the home or office. This is because the signal is weak, the AP is congested, one is meant to re-authenticate. Whatever the reason, 'default to Wi-Fi' more often detracts from the experience rather than providing faster speeds or seamlessly saving on data usage charges (the biggest 'perpetrators' here are Cable Wi-Fi, followed by Boingo in airports).
Perhaps some of the features of Hotspot 2.0 and Passpoint will help solve some of this, but they are still in the early stages of deployment. Google-Fi is also getting at this consistency issue by more intelligently providing the 'best connected' experience across Wi-Fi/Sprint/T-Mobile at any point in time, but the service is still limited in availability and very much a work in progress. Apple's attempt with Wi-Fi Assist is a public acknowledgment of this problem, though flawed so far in its execution. But clearly, improving the interplay between cellular and Wi-Fi is an important component of the 'consistency' issue, and will become even more so as we move toward small cells and denser networks.
Translating 'most consistent' wireless network into something relatable and measurable is a challenge. Although I don't expect to see 'most consistent wireless network' in TV commercials, rest assured that when an operator can deliver on this promise, some marketing maven will find a compelling way to tell the story. Ultimately, the operator that can deliver the most consistent and predictable mobile broadband experience will win in the marketplace.
Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.