/ Technology

Has the pandemic changed the way we use our mobiles?

Many of us have been forced to change our working habits, but has this altered our smartphone usage as well? RootMetrics has taken a look at the impact.

This is a guest post by Kevin Hasley of RootMetrics. All views expressed are his own, and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Although many of us have been in our homes for most of the time during the pandemic, the amount of time we spent using our mobiles actually increased.

Some users who live further out of urban areas at times found that mobile networks could deliver a better and more reliable experience than broadband to support remote work and learning (and perhaps even mobile gaming between meetings or classes).

In a multi-person household where everyone was accessing the home network simultaneously, we’ve heard anecdotal stories of smartphone users discovering that their high-quality mobile signal was often the best option for work and leisure.

Given that most business districts across the UK have resembled deserted towns during lockdown, what effect has the massive reduction in worker numbers had on connectivity in city centres?

Impact on city centres

Using London as an example, RootMetrics has found that speeds in the city are generally strong, and EE is the network out in front.

The continued expansion of 5G should see even better speeds in future. In the first half of 2020, EE offered the fastest speeds in the capital and also provided a winning combination of broad 5G availability and fast 5G speeds.

This points to promising results ahead for the rest of the country. While our research has shown that it’s clear the operators have prioritised their networks for optimal performance in central London, those strong 5G results could extend across the entire city and country as we move further into 2020 and into 2021.

The UK is still adapting to life in and out of lockdown, but we won’t all be returning to our places of work anytime soon.

With a large proportion of the workforce continuing to work remotely for the foreseeable future, both mobile operators are broadband providers are rethinking the importance of using 5G for the backbone of fixed wireless access (FWA), which could help deliver gigabit speeds to routers in homes and offices with 5G rather than fibre.

The future of 5G connectivity

In the meantime, 5G will likely take on increased importance for all mobile operators as deployments expand and mature. 

As individuals and a society, we’re becoming increasingly data-reliant as our connected communities continue to grow.

Once we reach a point in which virtually everything is connected, and residents and visitors can enjoy more convenient and user-friendly experiences, we believe we’ll see continued reliance on the connectivity offered by 5G.

The initial performance indicated in testing shows plenty of promise and it’s exciting to see what 5G will enable in the future, whether that’s driverless cars, smart hospitals or simply a more efficient way of living. 

Have you found you’re using your mobile phone more during the pandemic? Do you believe the signal in your area will be strong enough to out-perform your fixed broadband?

This was a guest post by Kevin Hasley of RootMetrics. All views expressed were his own, and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Are you using more or less mobile data than before the pandemic?
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Comments

Before the pandemic, I was already paying only 1p/MB with Three, without having to pay for and waste a large monthly data bundle every month. So during the worst of the pandemic while staying at home, my usage cost me only around 5p per week, as my iPhone was nearly always connected to my 1Gbps home internet.

I expect that many consumers were contracted into paying for monthly bundles of 1GB, 2GB, 5GB or even more, despite being at home on wifi and using almost none of these bundles. This highlights what a bad system these monthly bundles are – whereby you are charged for all of the monthly bundle even if you don’t use it. Imagine if we had to buy electricity and gas in this way – either guess how much you will consume in a month which wastes any units that you don’t use by the end of the month, or otherwise be stung with a unit price that is many times the usual price. For example, let’s assume that electricity costs around 10p to 25p per kWh, depending on supplier. But imagine if the energy companies did what the mobile networks do and instead of charging you simply 12p/kWh, your supplier requires you to buy a monthly bundle of 500kWh for £60 or otherwise you pay an inflated price of £1/kWh for incremental usage. If you don’t use up the full 500kWh, you lose the unused units and if you use more than 500kWh, then you pay an inflated £1/kWh. Neither Ofgem nor consumers would tolerate this bundle system with energy, so why do Ofcom and consumers tolerate it with mobile phone services?

Actually NFH, almost all energy companies require their users to pay standing charges, which is a bit like paying for a monthly mobile bundle.

In my case, the pandemic has not significantly changed my pattern of mobile usage. But there were a few days when my broadband had failed and I to use mobile data for all my data needs.

Currently I am content with the cost of my mobile service, which is £8 per month. It follows that I could save up to £8 per month if I shopped around.

I am less happy with my broadband band cost, as that is almost £30 per month. It follows that I can potentially save up to £30 per month by shopping around, so I hope to do that soon.

I might even ditch broadband altogether and just increase my mobile data allowance, but that won’t give me the security of having two diverse systems.

A standing charge on energy is more akin to the standing charge on a fixed line telephone; these standing charges fund the physical infrastructure to deliver the service into one’s home. But mobile networks charging for 1GB even if the consumer uses only 50MB is disingenuous and should be outlawed. A bundle should be either volume-limited (e,g, 1GB) or time-limited (e.g. one month), not both.

As you suggest, landline costs still tend to include monthly line rental while many mobile packages do not. But, in effect, I could say that I’m paying a standing charge of £5 per month for unlimited calls and texts and then £3 per month for mobile broadband, up to a data limit of 2GB.

If that means I’m being overcharged by up to £3 per month, I’m really not going to lose any sleep over that.

I used most of my 5GB data allowance when I was away for a week but have used very little data since before the lockdown thanks to being at home for most of the past seven months. I have made a huge number of phone calls during this time, most on my mobile, which has a better phone book than my landline handsets. EE might be the best network in London but round here you could not make a phone call never mind connect to a website. I’m getting a download speed of 79 Mbps on Vodafone at present. I did use mobile broadband for a couple of months when waiting for FTTP to arrive when I moved home.

I enjoy visiting rural areas and am disappointed in the number of places with poor mobile coverage. Reliable 4G or even 3G would be welcome, but I suppose that providing 5G to selected cities takes priority.

Assuming this is up-to-date, a brief examination of mobile phone coverage in even populous parts of the country shows a huge disparity between the different providers.
https://checker.ofcom.org.uk/mobile-coverage
I use a mobile phone to be just that; not only useful where I live but where I visit – when I am mobile. So I want decent national coverage. No provider gives that but, between them, it is pretty good.

I would, therefore, like to see my phone use my own network wherever possible, but switch to another when that is not, and not only for emergency calls. I am sure that can be done technically, and I am also sure that an interchange of costs could be arranged. As an essential part of everyday life now the mobile phone service should be universal.

If I were in charge ( 🙁 ! ) I would sort this out as a condition of selling licences for 5g. We are just adding benefits to a very small section of the population while depriving the vast majority of theirs.

Concerning coverage, it annoys me that some networks restrict wifi calling to particular categories of customers. Wifi calling allows you to make calls and more usefully to receive calls via your mobile number over IP whenever your phone is connected to wifi, for example in Tube stations and large buildings where mobile signals don’t penetrate. Whilst Three allows all its customers to use wifi calling, Vodafone and O2 deliberately disable this functionality for their prepaid customers. Wifi calling is a form of coverage that doesn’t use the mobile networks’ costly mast infrastructure, so there is no reason to restrict this additional coverage to particular categories of customers.

I have not found the Ofcom coverage checker very reliable over the years but that may be because buildings etc can block signals and weather has an effect. I have a second mobile phone on another network which means that I can almost always make a phone call.

Network sharing allows emergency calls to be routed automatically via another network if the caller’s mobile network is not available. Several years ago I had to call the emergency services several times one afternoon and it worked every time. Ofcom could require this service to provided routinely for all mobile customers and the networks could recover costs from each other if they wished. I’ve been advocating network sharing for years.

NFH – I assume that the reason that WiFi calling is because PAYG phones are usually subsidised and forcing callers to use the mobile network rather than WiFi helps recoup costs. I would prefer if phones were sold at a realistic price.

Wavechange, the cost of using wifi calling is the same as via the mobile network. So if you phone a chargeable UK number, then you will be charged or it will come out of your inclusive minutes if you have them. If you receive a call, then it will be free. It’s just an additional form of coverage for voice calls.

I am totally against subsidising phones and I agree with you that phones should be sold at their market price. Subsidising the goods with an inflated monthly charge for the service only encourages wasteful behaviour, i.e. acquisition of new phones more often than the consumer would otherwise expect. In mobile telephony, I would like to see the price of the goods and the price of the services to be totally separated with no cross-subsidy. I recently paid £568 for a new iPhone SE 2020 256GB, which was the full price (including a charger) from Apple, and I pay 1p/MB to Three for the service. I know only a tiny minority of people who do the same as me.

Thanks for this information, NFH. I have not enabled WiFi calling because I was put off using free WiFi years ago as a result of marketing. My monthly SIM-only contract includes ‘unlimited’ calls, so I have no need to limit calls.

I have not checked to find out if this would cover WiFi calling or if this would be chargeable. I used to have chargeable calls blocked but came unstuck when I tried to call the police non-emergency number, 101, and could not make the call. This number became free soon after.

Wifi calling will cost you whatever it costs to use mobile calling. So if the call incurs no charge for mobile calling, then it similarly incurs no charge for wifi calling. There is no disadvantage to enabling it.

Thinking back to when I bought my phone I did check that WiFi calling worked. I have no need of the service but it’s good to know that there is no hidden charge.

It’s a good idea to leave wifi calling enabled all the time. Connecting to the mobile network via your in-house wifi is very lower power compared to the power required to connect to the nearest mobile phone mast. This makes a difference while the phone is on standby.

I am familiar with the battery being depleted faster in an area with no mobile coverage but since a new mast was erected four years ago I have a strong signal. Will a smartphone last several days on standby if WiFi calling is activated? I have fond memories of charging a Nokia once a week, though it was a rather useless device compared with a modern smartphone.

While I’m at home, I keep my iPhone’s battery between 20% and 80% in order to preserve its longevity. Charging every night would go over 80% unnecessarily. Therefore I don’t charge my iPhone at night, but instead during the day, particularly while I’m using it heavily. Before going to sleep, I run an automation, which turns on flight mode (without disabling wifi), do-not-disturb and low power mode. It then connects to the mobile network only using wifi calling, and consequently it hardly uses any battery at night.

I don’t leave anything charging overnight because of the small fire risk from the lithium battery or the charger. With a counterfeit charger the risk might not be small.

I find if anything, I’m using my mobile less as before, I would be catching up on social media during my train journey to/from work or listening to podcasts. Now I tend to make the most of the extra time at home.

We don’t all have so-called “smart” phones.

Crusader – With 82.9% smartphone penetration of the population, the UK has the highest user rate of smartphones in the world*, closely followed by the UAE, Germany and the USA, so it is not unreasonable to presume that nearly every adult has one.

We don’t all use the smart features, however; I don’t need to use the internet on mine so it is not enabled for that purpose. I don’t have any apps installed either and it is not synched with any other devices. Perhaps this is why I am never troubled by nuisance calls or other interferences and perhaps you also enjoy such benefits.

* https://www.bankmycell.com/blog/how-many-phones-are-in-the-world#:~:text=of%20people%20have%20smartphones%20today%20According%20to%20Statista%2C,billion%20users%2C%2033.58%25%20of%20that%20year%E2%80%99s%20global%20population.

I’ve used a smartphone for six years and very rarely nuisance calls, even though I do make use of the internet, it is synchronised with my computers and I use a modest number of apps.

Perhaps it’s best to think of a smartphone as a portable computer that can also be used to make phone calls.

Yes, that is exactly what it is and virtually indispensable. It’s just that I prefer to do everything that needs a computer in the peace and comfort of our home, with a decent keyboard and screen and a good reliable internet connexion. I spend more time than on anything else producing Word documents and e-mail correspondence [rather than messages, texts or telegrams]. Since during the present emergency I am only going out once a month for under an hour [just to collect a prescription] my current arrangements are adequate and satisfactory.

What convinced me to buy a smartphone was to get my laptop online by tethering. Prior to that I had used a MiFi (mobile broadband router) for that purpose for a few years. I can send email from the phone but prefer to use a keyboard.

I have rarely found the need to use my computer away from home which is why a chose a pc over a laptop when I updated. Since then I have acquired an iPad but do not have any need to take that away, unless I go on holiday ( which is not often, and never under the present conditions).

My smart phone was a hand-me-down and, although a little elderly in phone terms, does all I need and much I don’t. Its primary use is phone calls, followed by messages, then looking up information, taking occasional photos. Rarely used for emails, never used for financial stuff. I could get a more secure one and use it for more tasks but, if I don’t find the need now why should I?

During the current pandemic I have mainly used click & collect for groceries. The local Morrisons sends a message with a link to a web page that lets you confirm that you have arrived and enter part of your registration number so that a member of staff can identify your car. This requires a smartphone, as does inspecting substitute items before the crates arrive.

I hope the Morrisons app works on older smart phones. Having set your collect 2hr slot online I imagine once you arrive you can make contact other than by an app to let staff know you are their?
Many years ago before our local M&S with a car park opened we shopped at one in the town with no car parking. You did your shopping, left the packed food in a trolley, they stored it for you – if you had chilled or frozen in a cold room – and when you were ready you drove into the collect bay, pressed a bell on a speaker phone, and your shopping was retrieved and packed in your car. No phone or app necessary.

I don’t have a Morrisons app. Around the start of the one hour collection slot a text message arrives and that has a link to a web page. It should work on older smartphones but not on phones without a touch-screen.

When I was a teenager my mum used to phone the grocery shop (what might now count as a local supermarket), read her order over the phone, and the goods would be delivered. The bill was settled at the end of the month.