Ofcom report – the case for VoLTE and more indoor solutions

Ofcom's latest state of the nation(s) report has Keith Dyer pondering.

Here are some interesting pull-outs from the mobile voice and data section of Ofcom’s Connected Nations report.

1 Overall data usage across mobile networks grew a lot from 2014-2015 – and the rate of growth is also increasing. On average, each consumer in June 2015 was using around 870MB of data per month, an increase of 64% since June 2014. That’s actually a larger growth in % terms than between 2013-2014, where the growth in average data per user per month was 51%.  There’s often a trend to downplay data growth on mobile networks. These stats show a trend where not only is average usage increasing, but the rate of that increase is growing.

Allied to this, no doubt, is the increase in LTE deployments and resultant coverage. Look at the chart below and it is clear the progress Vodafone and Telefonica have been making on their Cornerstone LTE grid. They are really eating into EE’s lead, which was a 31 and 25 point lead last year, and is now down to 12 and 10 points.

Overall 4G coverage

2 SMS and MMS messages are declining. 110 billion were sent in 2014, as opposed to a historical peak of 151 billion in 2012. You would have to trend this to mean that 2015 SMS and MMS levels will be below 2009. Sure, there are still some pockets of growth within that – notably in A2P messaging, but the “message” is clear.

SMS decline

3 Modern smartphones don’t work as well in 2G bands – a case for widening LTE coverage and driving to VoLTE? Ofcom has found that operators actually need more signal than they thought to generate reliable voice quality for smartphones using 2G connections to make calls. This, it thinks, is because modern smartphones are “less sensitive” in 2G bands than older phones. Here’s the quote:

“This research found that the mobile operators’ predicted signal levels were generally being delivered in practice. We also found that a 2G signal level of -81dBm was needed to ensure a low likelihood that calls will not be interrupted or dropped. This is a higher level than assumed by operators in their coverage maps and is also higher than we assumed for last year’s report. We have identified two main reasons why a higher signal level is required to achieve reliable 2G voice call coverage: i) The sensitivity of modern smartphones is generally lower in the 2G frequency bands than that of earlier-generation mobile phones; ii) A higher signal level is needed to compensate for the variability in 2G signals caused by blockages by trees and buildings.”

Ally this insight to the fact that smartphone penetration is on the increase, and only going one way, and you have a conundrum: more new smartphones, but those smartphones that you might think would therefore necessitate more broadband network investment, but you might actually require more 2G network investment as well to get them working properly for voice calls. If you are an operator, would you rather invest in 2G or go straight to LTE, and get those users onto VoLTE as soon as you can. If you do that you have invested in something with some longevity, but also you are not not investing twice (in 2G and 4G – eventually). The case for VoLTE, often derided, just got another tick in the Pros column.

4 Data show that there are now over 530,000 femtocells in use in the UK, up from around 400,000 in 2014. That seems like quite a lot, really, as a % of households, given that the overwhelming majority of these will be residential. Does it speak to continuing problems with indoor coverage? Probably.  In which case…

5 Ofcom is looking seriously at how to get better indoor and rural coverage. It found that indoor coverage in rural areas is especially poor – for example, 72% of rural premises in the UK have voice call coverage from all networks outdoors; but only 31% of rural premises have the same level of coverage indoors. This is, to put it bluntly, because operators still think there is not enough money in investing in the sort of rural coverage that would extend indoors well. Consumer demand (due to demographics of age and income) is too low and infrastructure is accordingly too expensive to justify rollout.

So what to do? Well, 800MHz LTE may help – as may more use of WiFi, with VoWiFi offered as a solution for those with poor indoor coverage. You still need a decent fixed broadband connection, of course, which can also be an issue in rural areas.

Ofcom also currently has a consultation underway on the role of repeaters in the UK, and is asking whether repeaters with certain characteristics could be licence-exempt even though they are deployed (necessarily) in licensed spectrum. And there is a technical study underway aimed at understanding the effects of repeaters on other mobile users.

6. Cellular IoT is still heating up but not yet bubbling.  The past year has seen a 28% increase in the number of IoT devices individually connected to mobile networks (i.e. with a dedicated SIM card) in the UK. Overall, there are already five million things, then, on the UK’s mobile networks. Not insubstantial.

cellular IoT UK growth

7. Public WiFi is on the increase, with around 45,000 public WiFi hotspots now on the ground. That’s quite a big increase year on year, however.

UK Public WiFi