Time spent on Wifi in the US falls as users move to unlimited plans

Posted on April 19, 2018 by Peter Boyland

Over the past year or so, unlimited data has really taken off in the U.S., with all four of the big players launching competitive plans to try to get a bigger piece of the market. But just because consumers are eating up more data via cellular, it doesn't mean they've stopped using Wifi – although we're seeing signs they're moderating their usage. It's been a year since our first look at the time U.S. consumers spent connected to Wifi, versus using data via their cellular networks. So are America's mobile users lingering less on Wifi, and if so, why?

Not surprisingly, our data, which covers the 90 days from December 1, 2017, shows that time on Wifi has fallen across three out of the four major operators. But more notable is the fact that the "big two" AT&T and Verizon saw the greatest drop in our measurements. As unlimited data plans in the U.S. become more ubiquitous, customers appear less concerned about finding a ‘free’ Wifi connection, leaning more on their ‘unlimited’ 3G and 4G networks for connectivity.

Both AT&T and Verizon saw the amount of time their customers spent on Wifi fall by 3 percentage points in our metric: AT&T's fell to 49% from 52%, while Verizon's fell to 51% from 54%. T-Mobile's score also fell to 41% from 43% since our last blog on U.S. Wifi, while Sprint stayed steady on 51%.

A year ago, time on Wifi was lower for T-Mobile and Sprint customers than for AT&T and Verizon users in our measurements – but this gap is shrinking. As competition in the U.S. market grows, all four operators have launched competitive unlimited data plans, and as more and more customers migrate to these plans, users are likely becoming more confident about consuming data over cellular networks without worrying about racking up big bills.

Although we've seen sharper falls in Wifi usage among AT&T and Verizon users, it's also dropping for T-Mobile, which has been offering an unlimited 4G plan for over five years now. However the Deutsche Telekom-owned operator has been even more aggressive about unlimited over the past year, expanding its ONE plan and eliminating all tiered offerings for postpaid subscribers. Its very nature as a disruptor in the market means T-Mobile has a reputation for being more attractive to the younger generation, who are more likely to spend time away from Wifi connections in the home or workplace.

The unlimited data onslaught has had a knock-on effect on our other metrics, as our most recent State of Mobile Networks: USA report showed. Our measurements showed that both AT&T and Verizon's 4G speeds fell, in tandem with a general increase in data consumption driven by the proliferation of unlimited plans. But the big two are now recovering, with Verizon now back to its pre-unlimited plan levels, according to our data. T-Mobile remains in a commanding position in both our 4G speed and availability metrics, while Sprint continued to improve in our latest round of tests. Sprint still sits in last place in both categories, but it has gone a long way to bridging the big gap with its competitors.

So if Wifi is in decline, why measure it? The simple answer is we don't think Wifi is going anywhere any time soon. Sure, data such as this from the U.S. shows that users are changing their connectivity habits and leaning less on Wifi, but this is a slow transition. The technology still has an important role to play in mobile connectivity, particularly in 'data intensive' activities like streaming video or gaming, while large numbers of small businesses such as coffee shops still rely on Wifi to draw in customers. The usage dynamic can be radically different in less developed markets, where Wifi is not as readily available in the home and fewer users own a PC, laptop or tablet, meaning the smartphone is more often the go-to device for Internet access.

Wifi still plays a hugely important role for telecom operators too. 'Multi-play' operators who offer both mobile and fixed-line services must consider their Wifi coverage as part of their cellular network strategy, particularly as they move to converting home hubs into public hotspots. Smartphone users are still spending more than 65% of their data time connected to Wifi in some countries. This reflects the resilience of the technology and the continued importance of the Wifi in understanding the wider wireless user experience.

What’s your experience with Wifi in the U.S.? Are you using it more or less following the shift to unlimited data plans? Do you think it’s a technology that’s going away or here to stay? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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