Users are Rational About Wi-Fi and Mobile Usage Caps

By Gary Kim June 08, 2011

Some observers profess to be more concerned about smart phone data caps than others. And though some surveys suggest users will seriously consider choosing another service provider if data caps for smart phones are imposed, there also is evidence that users already are quite sophisticated about their mobile broadband consumption, and routinely use Wi-Fi instead of complete reliance on their mobile access plans.

One might argue that users also are sophisticated enough to have figured out that Wi-Fi user experience is better than when using 3G networks. What remains to be seen is how user behavior might change when faster 4G networks, also offering better latency performance, are widely used. It isn't completely clear whether users are favoring Wi-Fi because it offers a better experience or because it helps them conserve availability of their mobile data capacity. 

Some 64 percent of consumers surveyed by Devicescape use Wi-Fi hotspots at least once a day. Most smart phone owners who use Wi-Fi also use it on the road.  The study showed 90 percent of those users report accessing Wi-Fi both at home and on the road.

Of those who use Wi-Fi outside their home or office, most (24 percent) connect at a cafe or coffee shop, 17.3 percent at a hotel, and 15 percent at a school campus. See Facing data caps, consumers keep turning to Wi-Fi

As typically is the case when Devicescape conducts its quarterly surveys, respondents say they will switch carriers, or will think about it, if new data caps are imposed. In the latest survey, about 73 percent had that view. 

An even-greater percentage--80 percent--report they will likely adjust their downloading habits if data capping is introduced by their carrier.

One might safely predict that most consumers will in fact not follow through on their intentions to switch carriers if new data caps are imposed. For starters, the caps are likely to affect less than five percent of smart phone users, at best. Most likely, any caps would affect only a single percent of users, or perhaps a couple of percent of users. 

Presumably carrier executives are smart enough to make sure that users know how little data they actually use, compared to the caps. 

The other thing is that smart phone users are rational when buying their broadband services, as they are about buying other goods and services. Given the choice of using Wi-Fi without eating into their mobile data allowances, people do so. You might argue that part of the impetus comes from the better user experience, as Wi-Fi will tend to perform better than 3G in almost all instances. But you might also argue that people are able to figure out they are better off using Wi-Fi when they can, to maximize the "value" of their mobile access plans as well.

Separately, in its own studies of Wi-Fi usage in 220 countries and territories, WeFi found that most of the Symbian devices (over 70 percent) download less than 100 MB per month over Wi-Fi, while Android users utilize Wi-Fi more extensively. About half of Android users downloaded over 100 MB per month, while almost 30 percent of Android devices download 100 MB to 500 MB. 

We-Fi also found that about five percent of smart phone users consume more than 2 GB over Wi-Fi in a typical month.

The interesting angle is that the WeFi data shows that the heaviest users, who presumably are most concerned about data caps, are the users most likely to make heavier use of Wi-Fi connections. PC and notebook users are much-heavier users of both 3G data and Wi-Fi data, compared to smart phones. PC or notebook users who consume 100 Mbytes or less of data each month make little use of Wi-Fi, compared to their 3G usage plans. 

Users who consume between 100 Mbytes and 500 Mbytes consume nearly half of all their data using Wi-Fi. Users who consume 500 Mbytes to 2 Gbytes of data use Wi-Fi twice as often as they use their 3G connections. 

Android users, even when consuming far less data than PC users, also show high usage of Wi-Fi, compared to their usage of 3G connections. Even when they consume 100 Mbytes or less of data each month, Android users use Wi-Fi about 45 percent of the time. All other heavier users use Wi-Fi much more than they use their 3G connections. 

In Oceania, more than 70 percent of users report using Wi-Fi on a daily basis, while in Africa about half of users report using Wi-Fi daily, a survey of GSM Arena readers suggests

What will be interesting is to see what happens when fourth-generation networks are available, since 4G will offer latency performance and download speeds quite comparable to many fixed connections. To the extent that smart phone or PC users have incentives to use Wi-Fi instead of 3G, they will have less incentive to do so when able to use 4G. 


Gary Kim is a contributing editor for TechZone360. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

Contributing Editor

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