Connectivity First: Think Like a Smartphone User

Posted on March 2, 2015

Smartphone users just want to get connected. The mobile operator community needs to think more like its customers and think about connectivity first, and technology second.  

Some 85,000 people will descend on Mobile World Congress 2015, bringing with them 85,000 smartphones that need to get—and stay—connected. Once upon a time, such density of cutting edge devices would have set the MWC crowd apart from the wider population—but not anymore. Gartner expects smartphones to account for 90 per cent of devices worldwide inside three years, which means penetration is already approaching these heady heights in mature markets, and within certain demographic segments.

In this sense, the gap between the typical end user and the industry professional has narrowed dramatically, giving rise to an interesting contradiction: This being Mobile World Congress, many attendees—as industry professionals—will be involved in discussions that position one bearer as superior to another, reflecting technology-aligned corporate strategies and biases. But, as smartphone users, they’ll make no such discrimination.

Like typical smartphone users everywhere, attendees at this year’s show will want to get connected, however they can. Like typical users they will encounter an array of connectivity options, characterized by significant variations in quality, availability, and cost. And, like typical smartphone users, they’ll often find themselves thwarted in their connectivity aims. It will happen with sufficient frequency that the connectivity experience will become, as it always does, one of the week’s recurrent conversational themes.

As smartphone users, we all care about connectivity more than we care about the underlying technology. The industry has long claimed to understand this, but it has been slow to reflect that understanding in the service it delivers. And so the options available to the end user are now diversifying with the emergence of disruptive Wi-Fi First offers. These new models, essentially pitting Wi-Fi against cellular as the dominant underlying bearer, owe their very existence to the industry’s tendency to compartmentalize according to technology.

So to mitigate this disruption, and to properly address the connectivity needs of the typical smartphone user, it is imperative for mobile operators to move beyond technology-centric service models and start thinking, like their customers, about “Connectivity First.”

Connectivity First is the theme of a manifesto we recently published at Devicescape to help keep ourselves, our customers, and the wider industry focused on an important truth: The service we provide must reflect smartphone user needs more than the legacy of technology-aligned strategies.

Smartphone users, at MWC and beyond, want and need connectivity everywhere they go. Cellular does a great job much of the time but users often move beyond the reach of the best the cellular network has to offer. They consume 93% of their smartphone data indoors, and they consume the majority of it over Wi-Fi networks. Some studies put Wi-Fi data at 80% of total; although our evidence suggests a more conservative 70%.

So it’s perhaps an interesting measure of the importance of connectivity that users allocate 100% of their smartphone connectivity spend—their cellular costs—to only 30% of their connectivity usage. That’s Connectivity First thinking.

Another way to frame these needs is to look at the impact that network availability and performance have on churn. Research shows that as many as 40% of users are considering churning from one mobile network to another at any one time. While there’s no discounting the importance of price and device in these decisions, the biggest driver for churn that relates to the service itself is discontent with the level of connectivity being provided in terms of coverage, performance, or both.

So imagine a service that took the provision of connectivity to a wider environment than the cellular network, a service for which we know there is a clear demand. The problem for many smartphone users—and here the gap between MWC attendees and the wider base remains more pronounced—is that they don’t always know how to manage connectivity off the cellular network. Our studies tell us that 83% of users find Wi-Fi connectivity too complex, and 29% never even connect to their own Wi-Fi at home!

In the public Wi-Fi arena, access to connectivity is sufficiently obstructed by problems with quality, convenience, and security that—for every connection successfully established—ten opportunities are missed.

Our end-user research leads us to conclude that what users really want is a Connectivity First service that manages their entire connectivity experience, not just its individual components. And our industry research reveals that 70% of operator executives agree with us. Talk about a sanity check.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that operators feel this way. Isn’t it likely that, after all, that left to manage the majority of their own access, the value users place on service provision will decrease over time?

It might seem surprising that Wi-Fi accounts for such a high proportion of smartphone usage, given the complexity many end users currently encounter in managing the access process. But for us this just shows that users who can easily access all available forms of smartphone connectivity consume the most. It also suggests that, if complexity is mitigated, smartphone users may well consume even more data over Wi-Fi than they do already.

Increasing WI-Fi usage is a worrying prospect for some within the industry; namely those for whom underlying technology remains paramount. But it needn’t be. We know that increased Wi-Fi usage actually stimulates increased cellular usage; so long as a Connectivity First service that manages the entire experience is present.

Data from our commercial deployments reveals that, when users are given an integrated Wi-Fi and cellular service, the clear majority (64%) consume, on average, 17% more cellular data than they did previously. What’s more, their total smartphone data consumption increases by 48%. Other industry studies show that the introduction of LTE also drives more data consumption across both cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

We know that smartphone users want to be connected all the time. We know that improvements in the performance and accessibility of individual bearer technologies increase demand and consumption across the board. And we know that delivering an integrated service is the most effective way of meeting users’ needs.

Smartphone users don’t think Wi-Fi First, or Cellular First, they think Connectivity First. Everyone at this event, the largest industry gathering of the year, is a smartphone user. It’s time the industry made that connection.