Bit rate doesn’t matter

A New Metric to Analyze Mobile Networks

We always see comparisons of mobile and fixed networks and providers that are based on measuring top speeds. And as a consequence winners use the concept of “fastest” operator in their marketing and customer acquisition. Yet, at the end of the day, what does top speeds have to do with what I as a mobile consumer need, and get from my own provider?

With a mobile device, our typical apps are social media, games, news, email, video streaming, etc. None of these really need tens of megbits of bitrate from the network. Only streaming can use a bit more in the beginning of the video, but then it requests data from the content server periodically and based on current network condition. The other apps really are satisfied with a few megabits, less than 10 Mbit/s in most use cases.

With the Netradar hybrid technology, we have looked at the daily bit rate needs of users around the world. We can see how well data flows from the network towards the consumer and vice versa for uploading data to a cloud service.

Let’s look at consumers from Finland and the United Kingdom during the past few months.

Finland is well-known for having low prices for mobile data and most consumers have unlimited data in their plans. This makes people care less about how much data, and how heavy applications, they use. On average, Finns need some 8 Mbit/s of download speed to satisfy their daily mobile life. Not a lot, right? And it makes sense if you look at what kind of apps people use on their mobile devices. Upload need is around 3 Mbit/s.

Yet, in the UK, consumers would need on average 6 Mbit/s for downloading content from the Internet and 2 Mbit/s for uploading data. Less than Finns, and very conservative numbers, too. Again, this makes sense, as the mobile data plans in the UK are much more expensive and limited in data amounts, so people are more cautious when using cellular networks with their apps (they rather use WIFI hot spots, but we’ll come to this in a later post, too, so stay tuned).

Now, if people really need quite little from the cellular network in terms of bit rate, they must be getting that pretty much always, right? Well, we all know that is not the case…

And here comes the key innovation from Netradar, the network “Service Level Score (SLS)“.

Imagine that you pay to use a toll road, to be able to get to your destination faster than using ordinary roads. In most cases there is little other traffic, or other cars, you don’t need to wait inline to enter the toll road, or to pay for the use. Yet, in some cases you don’t get a perfect service, you need to queue up at either end of the road and wait to get your service. Or at a grocery store, how often do you get to pay immediately, or do you need to queue up for a long time to get service at the counter. Or take your favorite service, post office, bank, etc. Maybe you get our logic. How well are you being served, or do you need to queue up and wait?

The same happens in mobile networks: do you (and your apps) get the service (bit rate) you need, or are you being slowed down by the provider? There can be many reasons (and let’s not go into network neutrality here), but network congestion or overload is the most common cause for having to wait.

With the Netradar technology, we can get this critical piece of information, and analyze how well people are being served by their chosen provider. Do they get the capacity (bit rate) they need, or not?

SLS is effectively a percentage and tells the fraction of service use where the user’s needs are satisfied. A perfect score would thus be 100%. This metric can be calculated for the whole network, certain geographic areas or cities, or even individual consumers.

Let’s come back to the Finland vs United Kingdom example. Finns use a lot of data and consumers in the UK considerably less. And this shows in the service level. Finns get only 68% of the time the bit rate they need from their mobile provider, while consumers in the UK are being served 77% of the time. So, in effect, as Finns use a lot of data, the networks are congested much more often than in the UK, and thus the service level suffers. These numbers are country-wide averages, and there are huge regional differences, for example, in some areas people are served 90% of the time, and in some areas less than 50% depending on the mobile provider.

So, let’s stop talking about top speeds and who has the fastest network – that’s so 90’s…

Who serves the consumers with the highest Service Level Score ?