How do we solve a problem like buffering? Irish networks need to step up

10 Aug 2017

Sometimes you just can’t wait to watch something on your phone. Image: Burhan Bunardi/Shutterstock

RootMetrics’ general manager of Europe, Scott Stonham, takes an in-depth look at the state of Ireland’s mobile broadband, and he’s found what we badly need.

Within the next four years, the average amount of data we use on our smartphones is set to grow to almost 9GB a month, according to a recent Ericsson Mobility Report.

To put this into perspective, the global average today is about 1.4GB. Given that Irish data usage was already at an average of roughly 1.8GB in 2015, local consumption appears to be outpacing worldwide rates.

With our data usage growing at an exponential rate, mobile operators have been forced to focus on providing more than just strong coverage – simply having a signal isn’t enough to provide us with a good mobile experience any more.

As we move towards more data-centric activities – such as the use of video services like Netflix and YouTube, and music streaming services like Spotify – operators must ensure they have enough capacity to support these habits.

Consider the following dramatic changes in mobile data consumption and speeds, from Juniper Research’s Data Offload and Onload report, and RootMetrics’ 2H 2016 RootScore reports for Cork, Dublin and Limerick.

  • Global mobile data traffic generated from devices, including smartphones and tablets, is expected to exceed 197,000 petabytes – or 197bn GB – by 2019.
  • Global average tablet data usage will exceed 3.3GB per month by 2021, up from 1.5GB in 2017.
  • Vodafone’s median download speed in Cork nearly doubled between June and November, from 27.6Mbps to 52.7Mbps.
  • Eir (and the now defunct Meteor brand), Three and Vodafone improved data speeds across all three Irish cities in 2016, supporting Ireland’s increasing data usage.

It is crucial that Irish mobile operators understand consumer trends and expectations, in order to help guide their offerings and which areas of the business to invest in.

While it may appear obvious that having more data available is fuelling our mobile behaviour, the forces affecting the relationship between the two make it less clear when looking deeper.

A bigger picture

When exploring the driving force behind data growth and consumer behaviour, mobile operators need to consider other elements that contribute to the bigger picture.

These considerations are: the increasing importance of mobile network capacity, and the significant effect of diminishing returns.

Operators are working hard to improve capacity so that our daily mobile experiences won’t be interrupted.

For example, Eir has invested more than €50m to add capacity and provide consumers with better coverage, with other Irish operators investing, too.

An increase in network capacity is necessary before an operator can offer us improved data speeds, and so, these investments are directly driving data growth and, therefore, consumer behaviour.

Additionally, technologies such as carrier aggregation – which allows mobile network operators to merge a number of different LTE carriers with the purpose of maintaining data speeds during peak traffic – are being designed to ensure we can enjoy a fast and reliable experience at all times.

More than just speed

However, Irish mobile operators need to do more than simply improve data speeds to guarantee that we will experience an improvement in our overall mobile experience.

The effect of diminishing returns – that is, as data speeds improve, the time it takes to complete mobile tasks will not necessarily improve at the same rate – needs to be understood and communicated effectively to consumers.

While there’s a noticeable difference in download time between 5Mbps and 10Mbps, at much higher speeds, there isn’t a significant difference.

It’s important for consumers to know that it’s not necessarily the case that an operator offering the fastest speeds for significantly more money is the best option, as the speeds between operators may appear the same.

Moving towards 5G

No matter how small these returns may be, networks in Ireland will continue to take steps towards implementing 5G-enabled networks to improve speeds, and prepare for our data demands of tomorrow.

In much the same way 4G delivered on 3G’s promise of video calling, 5G will help deliver prospective 4G technologies such as mobile virtual reality (VR) more readily, as ‘low tech’ VR solutions such as Google Cardboard gain prominence.

Although the returns may be small, for the more data-intensive activities, that small difference is crucial.

As consumers, we will see more technologies such as streaming through VR – which requires a huge amount of data – become easy to use when out and about.

Ultimately, the need for faster speeds will continue to gain even more importance, as our demand for data-heavy tasks increases and operators continue to invest in new technologies.

As operators in Ireland look to dramatically increase their network capacities, data speeds will increase alongside them, and mobile behaviours will adapt and evolve in response.

In spite of everything, network operators are guiding our mobile behaviours, and those countries with the most improving median speeds will be the most likely to benefit from a future of bufferless mobile streaming.

By Scott Stonham

Scott Stonham is general manager for Europe at RootMetrics, a company he has been with since 2013. He is responsible for the expansion of RootMetrics into new territories across Europe. Stonham previously worked with Qualcomm, Vodafone and Miyowa, and has helped technology and telecommunications companies to grow and run their businesses since 1997.