Can Crowdsourced Mobile Testing Lead To Better UK 4G Networks?

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INTERVIEW: OpenSignal CEO Brendan Gill explains why its testing offers a more accurate view of UK 4G and where the country stands internationally

Six years after the first commercial 4G service went live in the UK, large swathes of the country are afflicted by coverage issues.

Network density, indoor reception and a lack of rural coverage all impact the speed, reliability and availability of an LTE signal.

All four major operators are spending billions on upgrading their infrastructure to quench increasing and unsustainable thirsts for data, but this is of little comfort when your home or office is still a mobile not spot.

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Independent testing

Operators use coverage checkers to help consumers and businesses see how coverage is in their area, while testing firms such as RootMetrics and P3 carry out independent network tests and rank each provider on their performance.

However OpenSignal believes its method of crowdsourcing provides more accurate insights into how a network behaves in the real world. For its most recent report, OpenSignal collected more than 800 million measurements from nearly 52,000 devices from across the UK over a three month period.

“Our vision at OpenSignal is to develop a standard of metrics for the industry,” Brendan Gill, OpenSignal CEO tells Silicon. “I think Ofcom know this and are quite supportive of what we’re doing.”

Gill accepts there is value in how RootMetrics and others conduct their tests but argues that because they use top of the range devices and mobile plans in controlled environments in certain areas, it does not represent normal behaviour.

OpenSignal’s findings, he says, come from users with various types of devices and tariffs who hold their smartphone differently or are indoors – something which professional testing cannot easily replicate.

“Some plans throttle video,” he says. “You might miss that when you’re testing if you’re using a top of the range mobile plan.

“It’s much easier for us to be very independent. We collect data on every network daily. Drive testers are reliant on the networks. There are a lot of overheads.”

‘More valuable’

But on the flipside, it could be argued that drive testers provide more accurate tests because they show the optimum performance of a network in a certain area, but Gill says OpenSignal’s findings are more valuable to the operators because customer experience directly affects churn.

He is also adamant that OpenSignal’s data offers greater transparency than other methods, such as predictive models, that are sometimes used for spectrum licences.

“We provide data publicly at a high level and then operators can use to improve their network,” he explains. “We’ll work with any operator.”

OpenSignal measures usual  metrics such as speed, latency and availability, and in the near future will add video-specific criteria such as ‘time to first buffer’ in recognition of the growing importance of multimedia content on mobile.

“We really believe there needs to be an independent standard,” he continues. “It’s so important to consumers and the country when underpinning our digital policies for the next decade. Having the right metrics is critical.”

Mobile trends

It is expected that the first commercial 5G networks will go live in 2020 but that the first applications will be targeting the Internet of Things (IoT) and businesses rather than consumers. This means the vast majority of users will still be reliant on LTE infrastructure.

In the most recent OpenSignal report, one of the most obvious trends was an increase in availability but a decline in speed advance.

“This year we’ve seen speeds level off in a number of countries,” he explains, adding that there is almost a “barrier” at 50Mbps. Of course, individual users might see high speeds, but this tends to be limited to certain areas or tariffs.

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As for the UK, it is ranked just outside the top 20 globally, but the average speed is 22Mbps –more than the global figure of 16Mbps. There are also signs that the LTE Emergency Services Network (ESN) being built by EE is having a positive impact, particularly in rural areas.

“That’s quite positive,” says Gill, noting the government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) for fixed broadband is 10Mbps. “We believe that speed is pretty usable when you look at most of the applications available today. Video apps are perhaps one of the most constraining.”

However there are storm clouds on the horizon. Just as the 2013 auction of 4G spectrum was delayed by legal challenges, the upcoming sale of 700MHz and 2.3GHz airwaves could be derailed.

While some of this bandwidth is designated for 5G, Ofcom wants to release as much spectrum as possible to boost 4G services.

“The longer we dally around with that spectrum auction, the [worse it will be],” warns Gill.

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