Wireless networks are not all equal. While 3G and 4G mobile broadband technologies offer good wireless data speeds over a broad area, they can't compare to the raw speed offered by Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi, however, is limited in its footprint and requires users to stay in small, defined areas. ComScore examined how different smartphone platforms are connecting to the Internet and came up with some surprising results.
ComScore's U.S. data shows that 71% of all iPhones used both mobile and Wi-Fi networks to connect to the Internet, while only 32% of Android mobile phones used both types of connections.
ComScore found similar results when it looked at Android and iOS data in the U.K.: 87% of iPhones used both mobile and Wi-Fi networks for web access, compared to 57% of Android phones.
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"With the rise in adoption of smartphones, tablets, and other connected devices, network operators have seen a surge in mobile web activity and face new challenges in keeping up with data demands while maintaining their quality of service," said Serge Matta, ComScore's president of operator and mobile solutions.
AT&T can back this up. The company says it has seen a 5,000% yearly increase in demand for mobile data since the iPhone debuted back in 2007. It was clearly caught off guard by the surge in demand, and AT&T's customers paid for it with shoddy service during the first couple of years. (AT&T has since bolstered and improved its network across the country.)
Perhaps this played a role in shaping ComScore's results. Consider that iPhone owners in 2007 and 2008 (before Android arrived) saw slow and inconsistent data services from AT&T. The first iPhone was an EDGE-only device; it didn't have 3G at all, but it did have Wi-Fi on board. Speaking from personal experience, I always sought out Wi-Fi whenever possible to improve my access. I'm probably not the only iPhone user to prefer Wi-Fi to 3G. Over the years, this behavior became ingrained.
ComScore sees Wi-Fi offloading as a good network management tool. "As bandwidth usage increases and the spectrum becomes more scarce, operators, OEMs, and others in the mobile ecosystem should understand the different dynamics between the use of mobile and Wi-Fi networks to develop strategies to optimize resources and provide their customers with continued high-quality network service," said Matta.
AT&T has offered customers easy access to Wi-Fi for several years now. It runs the Wi-Fi mobile hotspots at Starbucks locations in the U.S. and at many other locations, such as the Times Square area of New York City. AT&T's smartphones have software that makes it seamless for AT&T-branded phones to hop off 3G and onto Wi-Fi instead. This frees up AT&T's 3G capacity for other users.
But this doesn't really explain why iPhone users are more likely to connect to Wi-Fi than Android users. Is there something in the user interface of the network management tools that prevents Android users from connecting? Is it just that much easier on the iPhone? Are passwords somehow getting in the way? Do iPhones have greater access to free public Wi-Fi than Android phones?
ComScore reports that availability of LTE is probably the answer: "In the U.S., the increased availability of LTE, 4G, and other high-speed data networks currently make it less necessary for smartphone users to offload, but it's also possible that the diminishing availability of unlimited cellular data plans will eventually push more usage to Wi-Fi."
No doubt. Most new smartphone buyers can no longer find unlimited data plans.
This is something that businesses can use to their advantage. After all, business users are also limited in how much mobile broadband they can consume on a monthly basis. Smart enterprises will make sure their employees are jumping off 3G/4G data networks and onto Wi-Fi when possible to help avoid overage fees or data throttling.
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