Device cost and network availability: What this means for Wi-Fi and 4G

With the rise of the Internet of Things, every electronic device is slowly becoming a connected one, meaning there’ll be an increasing hunger for data. In fact, UK consumers are already data hungry...

UK consumers are already data hungry

UK consumers are already data hungry

We all expect to be able to read our emails, watch videos and even stream live TV on our phones and tablets wherever we go, yet none of us care where we get our data from, so long as it’s cheap.

Yet, cost is still the biggest concern for you and I. After all, who wants to pay at least £100 extra just to have a slightly faster mobile data connection, when we can connect to free public Wi-Fi hotspots instead? Plus, not everyone has 4G coverage in their area yet.

How will these two major factors impact 4G and Wi-Fi in the future? Let’s take a look.

Consumers are happy to wait

Despite the fact that 4G was first launched all the way back in October 2012 by EE, take-up remains relatively low. According to figures from Ofcom released in April 2014, just 12 per cent of Brits use 4G services. This is largely due to financial reasons, as 4G contracts and devices still cost more than consumers are willing to pay.

The extra cost is dampening uptake, and so the only people using 4G currently are the early adopters. This is a typical uptake trend that we see with almost every new piece of technology. The early adopters who love to have the latest gadget or service first are prepared to spend that little bit extra.  Most of us don’t have that sort of money to burn on something we’re not even sure is going to be a success or not, so we wait.

The majority prefers to sit and wait for the reviews. You’ll never find consumers like them queuing up outside an Apple store to buy the latest iPhone. They’d rather wait and see if a better deal comes around, and who can blame them?

Coverage remains patchy

Anyone who lives in an area which is not covered by 4G is obviously not going to want to pay more for a service they cannot access. Although operators are constantly rolling out 4G to new areas, consumers who live in rural areas are the ones set to go without 4G coverage the longest.

. The first places to receive a 4G service were cities, as that is where the most demand for data lies.

This also means that the 4G network is actually quite empty at the moment, but it won’t be long until it becomes congested. The cheaper that 4G becomes and the wider its coverage reaches, the more people will begin to sign up to the service and use it. The more people that move to 4G, the slower the service will become and, despite the low uptake of 4G, this is already a problem, as I will explain below.

What are consumers actually getting for their money?

The main reason consumers make the switch from 3G to 4G is that the latter offers much faster speeds, allowing them to watch YouTube videos without having to wait for them to buffer, for example. Operators once promised that 4G networks would be five times faster than 3G, but now 4G networks are beginning to slow down. This is, of course, due to an increased uptake. A November 2014 survey by Which? and OpenSignal revealed that 4G is now less than three times faster than 3G. If only 12 per cent of Brits are using 4G now, how much more will the network slow down by the time that percentage climbs to 50 or 100 per cent?

There is, however, a way for operators to convince more people to take up 4G; offer them free Wi-Fi. Consumers with both 3G and 4G contracts are continuing to heavily use Wi-Fi for a number of reasons. Therefore, free Wi-Fi when they’re out and about will likely go some way to convince them to make the switch.

Why are consumers still using Wi-Fi so much?

Personally, I don’t care where I get my data from, and most other consumers feel the same way. So long as I can access Facebook or Twitter on the go, I’m happy to use a 3G, 4G or Wi-Fi connection.

Moreover, most people are saddled with a limited amount of data and constantly worry they’re going to reach their limit before the month’s end. To stop this happening, they use Wi-Fi wherever possible. Even so-called ‘unlimited’ data contracts don’t actually offer an endless amount of data but are capped with ‘fair usage’ policies. Therefore, if you’re downloading particularly big files on a regular basis, you’re going to be pretty cautious about solely relying on 4G.

Wi-Fi connections are often faster too, especially for streaming and downloading, so people are naturally going to switch when carrying out such tasks. This is a deep-seated habit that will probably never change, at least not in the near future. Unless Wi-Fi is replaced by a superior technology, which is unlikely as it is a constantly improving one, Brits will always need and want free Wi-Fi.

It’s also important to remember that not all devices are capable of using 3G or 4G, but Wi-Fi is the standard for connected devices. Tablets are a great example of this – all models are capable of receiving Wi-Fi, but only the premium ones are capable of having a sim card fitted so they can use 3G/4G. Thus, Wi-Fi devices dominate the market globally, meaning that Wi-Fi usage is high, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

What about 5G?

I believe it won’t be until 2017/18 that we start to see more 4G than 3G users, and a couple of years later 5G is set to make an appearance to the general public. By 2020, a large number of internet-connected devices will depend on 5G, and the impact of this new tech is set to be as dramatic as the switch from 2G to 3G.

The standards for 5G have not been confirmed yet, but the service is set to deliver data speeds of a whopping 10Gbps. Capacity will also be between 100 and 1,000 times higher than it is currently. Better reliability is promised too. In fact, it is claimed 5G will be unbreakable.

Naturally it will take some time for 4G users to migrate to 5G, so the former is set to stick around for some time. I predict that Wi-Fi will also remain popular, as 5G data will be unaffordable for many when it is first launched. It’s unlikely that true unlimited data plans will ever exist either, so people will continue to fall back on Wi-Fi whenever they need to download large files or stream to their smartphone or tablet.

4G will fade away eventually, just as 3G will and 2G did. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, will always be wanted and will remain essential to millions of people and billions of devices.