Analyzing the U.S. Mobile Experience during the coronavirus pandemic: Time on Wifi

Hardik Khatri (Technical Analyst), Sam Fenwick (Senior Analyst)

Smartphone users in all of the US’s top 50 cities are spending more time at home on Wifi

The percentage of time that smartphone users spend on Wifi connections has increased across all of the U.S.’s top 50 cities. Strikingly, to date we have not seen a deterioration in 4G download speeds in 49 of these 50 cities in the last few weeks unlike the falls we have seen in a number of other countries, although the situation remains fluid and may change.

The average percentage of time smartphone users spend connected to Wifi (Time on Wifi) is an early indicator of behavioral changes. As people are spending more and more time at home, this is increasing. Normally, smartphone users spend more of their time connected to Wifi on weekends and during public holidays — demonstrating that it is a good indicator of increased time spent at home.

In parts of the U.S. we have seen Time on Wifi increase in cities even ahead of state-wide stay at home orders, which is a trend we previously saw in Italy. Time on Wifi rose in many Italian northern provinces during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, even before official quarantine measures were imposed

The U.S., like many other countries around the world, is now facing a COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, with an array of medical, social and economic challenges. Opensignal is analyzing the changes in mobile user behavior and network experience that are happening during this crisis. We are sharing our data and findings to help mobile operators, telecom regulators and governments to prepare for, and respond to, the challenges the virus presents in these exceptional times.

In this analysis, we look at how Time on Wifi has changed in the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) by population in the U.S. on a weekly basis between the second week of January and the first week of April. In the vast majority of MSAs, we observed a significant week-on-week increase in the percentage of time smartphones users spent on Wifi in the third week of March (starting March 16). However, we detected a significant increase above the median value one week earlier in six MSAs:

  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA
  • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA
  • Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA
  • San Diego-Carlsbad, CA
  • Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT

The MSAs where we observed the largest percentage week-on-week change in the third week of March were:

  • Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL – 18.2%
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA – 17.4%
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA – 17.1%
  • New Orleans-Metairie, LA – 16.9%
  • Austin-Round Rock, TX – 16.2%

Smartphone users in the New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA MSA, which is one of the worst hit areas in the U.S. affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, increased the average amount of time they spent connected to a Wifi network from 53.4% to 60.1% between the second and third weeks of March — an increase of 12.4%. It then rose further to hit 64.7% in the first week of April.

In the fourth week of March, we detected statistically significant increases in Time on Wifi in 36 of the top 50 MSAs, but in the following week we detected no significant changes. The highest proportion of time spent on Wifi that we observed was in Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO, with a score of 68.6% in the first week of April. 

To see how the amount of time that smartphones users spend connected to Wifi has increased at the national level and how it compares to users in other countries, see our previous analysis on this topic here.

We have also been monitoring these same 50 MSAs in terms of their average 4G download speeds. Our users have not seen significant week-on-week decreases in this regard in 49 out of the 50 MSAs that we have been tracking between the last week of March and the second week of April. They include some of the areas that have been worst hit by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, such as Los Angeles and as previously mentioned, New York.