Shock result: WiFi beats LTE user experience

WiFi is making big inroads in markets around the world. In both the home/office and in public hotspots it seems to be taking the strain of ever-increasing wireless data demands.

For the cellular industry, though, this apparent trend is still often characterised as a temporary fix. LTE, we're still often told, will provide the necessary means for a course correction just as soon as telcos can get it up and running at full speed. It will then, they say, provide a better user experience than makeshift WiFi solutions.

But will it? Some recent research in London has put that outcome in real doubt.

WiFi has certainly taken hold in the UK. A recent O2 survey on WiFi usage in UK town and city centres found that WiFi access is not only firmly established, but using 'free' WiFi appears to be the favoured option over using cellular broadband.

Over half of all Britons now connect while out shopping - to kill time and compare prices, says O2. Tellingly, a quarter say they are more reliant on it than they used to be a couple of years ago and nearly as many say they'd take their business elsewhere were it not available.

What O2 isn't saying (although it must have asked) is 'Why?' Why this primal urge to use WiFi over the telco's own mobile broadband service?

Bandwidth caps have a lot to do with it. Many users certainly like to steer clear of using cell as much as possible in case they 'go over' their monthly limit. But there's an "and anyway..." hovering over that pat answer. For one thing not all smartphone deals are capped and their users still use WiFi, so Why-Fi?

The "and anyway..." is simply that most users believe WiFi usually delivers a better experience - especially for data-heavy tasks. When they sit down in the coffee shop with a beverage in one hand and smartphone in the other, they want the caffeine-induced surge of energy they're about to experience matched by a surge in the speed and responsiveness on the small screen. Today in the UK, that usually means using WiFi.

Not surprisingly telcos - for all their cleverness in using WiFi to "offload" from their networks with the relatively sudden appearance of the data-hungry smartphone (especially O2 in the UK, which won the iPhone) - always seem reluctant to follow the intellectual dots on this issue. If WiFi is the temporary fix, the low-cost (about a 20th the cost) band-aid brought in to avoid a smartphone data crunch, how come it actually performs better than the main event?

When this question IS asked and answered there is often a reference to the next generation. LTE, it's maintained, will change things and solve the hot spot data crunch issue for good - its performance will far outshine WiFi, we're told

However, there's other evidence that says it won't - at least not consistently.

As we've long argued at TelecomTV, LTE provides a speed ramp for 3G - on its own as a simple macro network upgrade it at best moves the goalposts back a year or two (if that) in the face of ever-growing and unstoppable mobile data demand. Much more will be needed if capacity demands are to be met, certainly involving small cell deployment and probably new business models. Meanwhile, WiFi will be at least keeping up by benefiting from new standards with much higher speeds.

Now some evidence just in from some performance monitoring undertaken in London by The Advanced Wireless Technology Group (AWTG), which styles itself as a leader in UK metro wireless/small cell technology, casts more than a little doubt on that outcome.

The AWTG has this year launched an independent Mobile Network Benchmarking Service and its latest results illustrate, not only that WiFi (as the current instantiation of small cell) is playing an increasingly important role in mobile device access, but that mesh WiFi can already beat LTE at its own game.

One of the AWTG's specialities is what its CEO, Abbey Alidoosti, calls quality of end user experience measurement, which is basically to use all the testing tools and techniques the company has in the locker - in-house QoE & Swissqual tools, static service testing, walk testing, even testing on a variety of London buses - to synthesise an overall real-world user experience score for mobile networks already up and running

In the early part of 2013 AWTG undertook indoor and outdoor testing of the four major UK networks in Central London, including a recently-launched LTE service operating at 1.8 GHz.

One of the most surprising results related to the sharp differences in performance between all the networks on specific data measures - even networks that were technologically very similar

But the real surprise came when the testing compared the overall performance of public WiFi against LTE: here the differences were significant and most were in the WiFi networks' favour.

The quality of experience with static web browsing showed rough parity between WiFi and LTE. But AWTG also undertook a static FTP uplink/downlink test to measure throughput performance. WiFi beat LTE on the critical downlink performance but lost out to LTE on uplink

With YouTube - a critical mobile broadband use case - WiFi came out better overall than LTE.

These results were a surprise to everyone involved. Not only did LTE not beat WiFI. It actually got beaten on several measures - so much for the LTE silver bullet!

Alidoosti thinks these scores (or something like them) should be the basis for consumer comparison of networks. Ideally he says, the scoring and its dissemination as a consumer friendly network comparison tool, could become the responsibility of the regulator.

"For the regulators the message is clear. They need to focus on quality of end user experience to reflect the true story of the state of mobile broadband networks as experienced by consumers," he says.

The overall message to the networks, though, is that LTE will not be a panacea if simply deployed using the conventional macro-and micro cellular models. "The ONLY way they can meet future consumer needs [in terms of coverage and capacity in dense urban areas] is to invest heavily in small cells and operator-managed WiFi," says Alidoosti.

"This industry has to start looking at the quality of the services from the user's point of view. "

For further information on the AWTG,click here

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