When we talk about smartphone connectivity, we tend to focus on the big name cellular technologies like LTE and future 5G technologies. We often tend to forget that one of the most important mobile technologies out there isn't actually a mobile technology at all: Wifi. Despite all the progress the worldwide mobile industry has made in boosting mobile broadband speeds and reach, we still rely heavily on Wifi for a good deal of our data consumption. In some countries, consumers smartphones spend as much as 65% connected to a Wifi signal.
The U.S. is a bit more modest in its Wifi use, but the typical U.S. smartphone user is still connected to some Wifi network or another a little less than 50% of the time. It's easy to see how. Our phones automatically log on to our home and work networks. When we go to the coffee shop, airport or mall, we often check to see if a free Wifi connection is available. There is also a growing number of operators like Comcast's Xfinity Mobile and Google's Project Fi that have adopted "Wifi-first" models, connecting their customers automatically to large networks of hotspots.
I thought it would be interesting to look at our data to see how consumers' Wifi use varied from city to city. In the above chart, you'll find 35 of the largest cities in the U.S. ranked by our Time on Wifi metric. First a bit of explanation: Time on Wifi tracks the percentage of time an OpenSignal user is connected to a Wifi network versus any other type of connection or lack thereof. So if a city has a Time on Wifi score of 50%, our users there spent half of their time on Wifi, while the remaining 50% of their connections were on a 2G, 3G or 4G network or no network at all.
Looking at the whole list, the trend that stands out is that Wifi use in the large metros is actually lower than it is for the U.S. overall. That could be due to several factors. Urban areas are where operators build most of their infrastructure. If it's easier to find a 3G or 4G signal in cities, then consumers may not actively hunt for Wifi connections. The younger demographics of many big cities may also be a factor. Twenty-somethings spend a lot less time at home connected to their Wifi networks than forty-somethings like me.
When we compare these cities against one another, we see some pretty big differences. The city with the most reliance on Wifi was Phoenix, with a Time on Wifi score of 37.8%. That's 13 percentage points higher than the city with the lowest score, Nashville. What makes the sun-drenched capital of Arizona so much more fond of Wifi than the home of country music? It's hard to say. In fact, there seems to be a striking lack of any pattern in these rankings. Geographically the top 5 Wifi-using cities couldn't be any further spread out, with one representative each from the Northwest, Southeast and Southwest and two from the Northeast.
Seasonal factors are also a red herring. The data I sampled here was collected between July and September, at the height of the summer when you would expect the good people of Phoenix to be indoors escaping the heat (and connecting to Wifi). But there are plenty of cities in the top 10 like Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis and New York City where summer produces an exodus to the outdoors and away from home Wifi networks. What about economic factors? Sure, tech-meccas San Jose and Seattle are high up the list of Wifi uses. But so is Detroit.
There doesn't seem to be any particular determining factor that makes one city more Wifi hungry than another, but maybe you see a pattern that I don't. Let us know how you use Wifi in your city in the comments section below.
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