In late 2017 we embarked on our most ambitious project in the UK to date, our most comprehensive ‘customer experience’ test to date. Over the course of several months we conducted focus groups with consumers across the country, surveyed over 2,700 smartphone owners, and drove the length and breadth of the country testing and collecting network performance data in 32 cities and towns. We reviewed and analysed enormous volumes of data, and then presented our findings to the media in a form that most accurately reflects what consumers are getting from their networks as it relates to what’s most important to them.

What does it all mean?

Consumers in the UK are inundated with mobile network studies and reports from network operators themselves, regulators and third-party testers. The results of these tests do not always correlate, but more troublesome from our perspective is that the focus of all these tests doesn’t align with how people actually use their phones day-to-day.

The majority of these reports focus on mobile internet throughputs (speed) and this means that the quickest network is more often than not claimed to be the best. However, the issue is that when we asked consumers to consider their top 5 most important criteria when selecting an operator, they chose reliability twice as often as speed. From a technical point of view, Netflix’s own guidelines say 5 mb/s is recommended for streaming in HD, something that all operators on test can achieve. So having a 50 mb/s throughput doesn’t mean that Netflix will perform better; and streaming video is an activity on mobile devices which requires the quickest connection. Only 3% of people said streaming videos on their phone was in their top 5 most important things they use their phone for, compared to 69% who chose making phone calls, 53% who chose texting and 43% who chose general web browsing.

What is clear to us is that the average smartphone user is much more interested in which network provides a reliable connection for doing those straightforward things mentioned above. While it is important to keep pushing forward technologically, what consumers can do with today’s phones may be reaching a plateau. For example, the majority of new phones have an HD screen which is somewhere in the 5.5” to 5.9” inch range with a 16:9 ratio to 18:9 ratio. While it is possible to fit a 4K screen to a phone, the human eye can’t distinguish much of a difference on those current small screens and the increased power required by a 4K screen can be detrimental to battery life. Sony’s XZ2 flagship premium offers a 4K screen, but perhaps it’s the exception. This means that today’s consumers do not need drastically more bandwidth for their smartphone activities even though they are spending more and more time on their phones shopping, emailing and calling. 2017 saw UK consumers spend more time on their phones than either on desktops or laptops.

It’s all in the presentation

From our survey and focus groups, we found out that 25% reported issues on trains, 22% struggle at home, 18% struggle in shopping centres and 13% have issues at work. Clearly, people need reliable network performance most where they live, work and play. That is why we looked at the test data and provided a breakdown of which network is the most reliable in each of the 32 cities and towns.

Consumers need to know which network is going to be the most reliable in the locations where they are using their phones the most, we think this is more useful than either knowing which network is ‘the best across the UK’ or which provides the fastest network. To make sense of all the data we’ve collected we developed a ‘reliability’ OneScore which looked at the network performance figures and weighted them according to what consumers ranked as the most important parts of network performance. We also folded in customer satisfaction data into the OneScore for the first time to flesh out a fully-rounded consumer-eye level view of network performance.

You can find the results of our network test in our press release which was covered by The Independent. You can also find our interactive map of the results across the UK here.