Operators must refocus efforts on covering ‘not-spots’ and improving reliability to better serve customers’ demands.

With the fast-paced nature of modern life, it sometimes feels as if speed is always of the essence. Even with the world on lockdown, it’s easy to see why, what with everything from online-ordered packages arriving on your doorstep the next day to takeout ordered and delivered within a half hour. Somewhat predictably, modern society seems to have grown fairly set on the idea that ‘faster’ equals ‘better’.

It’s certainly the case that nobody likes waiting longer than they must. But the main problem with the ‘faster’ equals ‘better’ line of thinking is that for many things, ‘fastest’ does not automatically equal ‘best’. This is particularly evident when it comes to our mobile networks. The reality is that there are numerous other areas beyond speed that contribute to the customer’s overall sense of service quality. In fact, it’s clear that there are growing numbers of UK smartphone owners who are dissatisfied with other core areas of network performance – such as a lack of coverage and poor reliability – as our recent network performance test report has revealed.

A common currency

Operators often compete on the grounds of delivering an ever-faster network experience to customers, and this attitude has become more conspicuous with the race to rollout 5G across the UK and the world. It’s understandable – customers recognise speed because they can see it in action each time they perform a network-based activity on their device. Because of this, it’s perhaps the easiest metric for customers to understand.

But for evaluating performance, a sole focus on speed testing represents a broken model. In fact, most people are perfectly happy with what their operator already delivers in terms of speed. Meanwhile, the problems that are more often reported – such as difficulties with network connectivity, patchy signal when travelling by road or rail and frequent blackspots in rural areas – continue to persist in areas across the UK.

The ‘sweet spot’ for speed

The results of our latest large-scale study highlight the existence of a disconnect between what customers want from their mobile network and what network testing companies are currently focused on measuring. For example, it’s clear that not only are network accessibility and availability of coverage both key factors that matter a great deal to people, but also that customers feel let down in these areas with network ‘not-spots’ a persistent concern – particularly in rural areas. What’s more, there is a clear demand for operators to refocus their efforts on improving reliability. In fact, customers now prioritise network reliability over speed as the more important performance metric by the overwhelming ratio of 40:1.

The GWS report also identified the ‘sweet spot’ for performing typical tasks with your smartphone as being between four and six seconds, with test data across the country highlighting that UK operators are typically delivering these levels of speed around 96 per cent of the time. The ‘sweet spot’ is not only what users feel is acceptable, but what they routinely expect to experience. Nearly eight out of ten mobile users deemed the ‘sweet spot’ period to be an acceptable amount of time to wait to complete mobile based activities, such as loading news and other website content. While tasks completing in a shorter amount of time was certainly seen as a nicety, it wasn’t considered a necessity. In fact, only when task completion was taking ten seconds or longer did users begin to get frustrated.

Building networks around customer demands

Using these insights as a benchmark is critical for mobile operators moving forward. If operators want to deliver the kind of performance their customers want, then they must consider both speed and reliability when building or optimising their networks. Operators simply won’t get the most of out of their network, if they focus most of their resources on speed while paying little attention to reliability.  To put it into context, in today’s environment, it makes little difference to people if their network is a few megabits faster given that current speeds being delivered by operators are already enough to enable video streaming without delay.

We’ve also been reminded in recent weeks just how critical mobile networks are when it comes to enabling businesses to continue to communicate and function effectively outside of the office as well as they do inside. The business world has changed quite dramatically in the last month or so, with face-to-face communications with customers, vendors, suppliers and simply between colleagues all falling away as people rely more and more on smartphones and virtual connectivity. With companies finding themselves heavily involved in remote work situations, it’s more important than ever that businesses have a mobile network that is built to meet their needs. This means that operators need to pay attention to how businesses are using their networks – and how they will want to use them in future – so they can provide services that continue to meet their shifting demands. Rather than focusing efforts disproportionately on single metrics like speed, operators must focus more holistically on ensuring network reliability and keeping businesses connected – particularly to their customers – wherever they are, today or tomorrow.

It’s clear that people don’t consider all areas of network performance to be the same, and that operator focus can often skew too far towards delivering faster speeds at the expense of a more rounded approach to delivering consistently available and reliable network coverage. It’s also true that customer expectations are constantly evolving, particularly as next-generation networks are gradually being rolled out. We know that people have, in recent years, come to consider the overall level of performance of the 4G network as the new minimum standard for network technology. Although 5G is still in its early phase of deployment, its no secret that the new network will likely very quickly follow suit as the new normal in the future.

But if operators are still so focused on improving things that people already feel are being delivered, it stands to reason that they are neglecting the core focus areas that really matter. That’s why operators need to be ahead of the curve if they are truly serious about building the best networks and improving delivery of their overall services.

Dr Paul Carter, President and CEO, Global Wireless Solutions