Smartphone users spending more time on Wi-Fi across top 50 U.S. metros

Opensignal saw a significant jump in six metro areas one week earlier than the rest and prior to any statewide stay at home directives. (Getty Images)

Smartphone users in all of the top 50 U.S. markets spent increasing amounts of time connected to Wi-Fi during the end of March, according to new Opensignal data, aligning with behavioral shifts at a time when states across the country ramped their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

At this point it’s been made pretty clear that people are staying home more often, as variants of statewide stay-at-home orders had been issued in all but eight states by April 7. Local authorities have their own directives in parts of some that decided against a statewide mandate, tracking by the New York Times shows, though some parts of the country are now starting to look toward gradually lifting restrictions.

Opensignal’s analysis noted that users typically spend more time on Wi-Fi during the weekend and on public holidays, meaning it’s a good indicator of more time at home.

By the third week of March, starting March 16, Opensignal observed a significant week-on-week increase in the percentage of time smartphone users were connected to Wi-Fi across all the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) based on population. Increases above the median average that week ranged between 5% and 20%.

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In the fourth week of March, at which point 21 statewide stay at home orders had been issued across the country, percentage of smartphone time spent on Wi-Fi again jumped significantly in 36 of the top 50 MSAs and remained elevated in the others. Increases ranged from 10% to more than 30% above the median average.

The data echoes stats from carriers like AT&T, which during the last week of March said Wi-Fi calling minutes were up a drastic 76% from an average Sunday, in line with a 78% surge in Wi-Fi calling minutes on March 26 compared to normal usage.

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon see consumers dial up voice usage

Interestingly, Opensignal observed a significant jump in six MSAs one week earlier than the rest and prior to any statewide stay at home directives. That includes four in California, which has been one of the hardest hit areas and on March 20 its Governor was the first to order all residents to stay home. That followed similar orders from local officials for residents in seven counties around the Bay Area. It also includes Washington, which is the state where the first COVID-19 case was detected in the U.S. Local officials in Seattle started recommending at risk individuals stay home and discouraged gatherings of more than 10 people as early as March 4. The following six MSAs saw percentage of time spent on smartphone Wi-Fi jump between 5-10% the week of March 9, earlier than the rest of those analyzed:

  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California
  • San Francisco- Oakland-Hayward, California
  • Riverside-Sand Bernardino-Ontario, California
  • Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington
  • San Diego-Carlsbad, California
  • Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, Connecticut

In the New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA metro area, another of the worst hit areas by coronavirus infections, smartphone users increased the average amount of time spent on Wi-Fi by 12.4% between the second and third weeks of March, rising from 53.4% to 60.1%. That figure increased again to 64.7% the first week of April.

RELATED: How will a mass shift to tele-learning affect wireless networks?

Overall, the MSA where smartphone users are spending the highest proportion of time on Wi-Fi is Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, Colorado, which recorded a score of 68.6% in the first week of April.

Separate Opensignal tracking of these cities has shown that average 4G download speeds have not dropped significantly in 49 of the 50 MSAs.

Carriers have said networks continued to hold up as mobile network traffic ticked up. In an April 16 update on increased mobile network traffic, AT&T said instant messaging, including text traffic from messaging apps and platforms was up nearly 60% overall, though declined slightly since the week prior.