The Catalyst Effect: Understanding the Impact of Lockdown on Residential Wi-Fi and Future Implications
Residential Wi-Fi is an essential service – a fact that became clearer during COVID-19 lockdowns around the globe. As cities and nations shifted to remote working and learning, it created a “new normal” and further accelerated reliance on home Wi-Fi.
The research presented relies heavily on real-world, anonymized usage data from AirTies Cloud, which supports 25 million homes from leading Internet service providers around the world. It covers a period in 2020 that includes pre-lockdown (January to mid-February) to the widespread lockdown period (mid-Feb through April) to the recent post-lockdown period (May through June). The paper examines the changes in user behaviour and the factors affecting Wi-Fi performance and its impact on homeowners’ quality of experience. It identifies several key findings, including the following:
- During lockdown, the number of actively used Wi-Fi devices within each home increased from 5.9 to 6.6 on average.
- During lockdown, not only were more devices in use, but they were being used simultaneously. An average of up to 5 simultaneously connected devices were being used every day of the week. This is a 30% to 40% increase on the pre-lockdown working day, where an average of only 3 devices per home with a peak of 4 in the evenings on weekdays and during the weekend was observed.
- Between the working hours of 9am and 5pm, Wi-Fi activity increased, ranging between 70% to 94% higher than pre-lockdown levels.
- During lockdown, the volume of average Wi-Fi data rose to over 11GB per home, for every day of the week. This compares to pre-lockdown when data consumption was around 6.5GB during the week to over 8GB at the weekends. In other words, average data volumes increased by a massive 62%.
- Propelled by an increase in video conferencing and online file sharing/storage usage, the volume of upstream traffic more than doubled, with an increase of 116% during the lockdown period.
- Before lockdown, approximately 19% of homes experienced measurable Wi-Fi coverage issues in their homes, but this rose to almost one third (32%) of homes during the confinement period.
While all these examples of the increased demands on Wi-Fi are interesting, the most significant data relates to the homeowners’ measurable Wi-Fi quality of experience (QoE), and a phenomenon that we call the catalyst effect. The findings show that when under pressure, Wi-Fi performance does not worsen in a linear fashion correlated with the increase in usage, but rather that it deteriorates in an exponential way. On an aggregate level, users’ experience deteriorated by 160%, with peaks reaching 200%, relative to the increase in Wi-Fi usage and activity. This catalyst effect remains prevalent in the post-lock down period as well, as measured through mid-June. This deterioration in quality of experience can, in turn, lead to increased customer care calls and lower NPS scores.
The final section of the paper briefly discusses solutions that can help mitigate the catalyst effect and improve residential Wi-Fi QoE.
Introduction and Approach
Factors affecting Wi-Fi performance and user experience
How consumers experience Wi-Fi is determined by many different factors, some more evident and easier to understand than others.
First, the experience is determined by the quality of the Wi-Fi equipment at the consumer’s disposal. A modern router paired with a recent client device that supports the latest Wi-Fi technologies, will clearly perform better and deliver a better experience for the consumer, all other things being equal.
The second factor that determines the quality of experience is the broadband access. Consumers do not distinguish between the broadband network and the Wi-Fi network when they access the Internet. What matters most is the speed and reliability of their connection. Thus, if the quality of the broadband access is poor, then the consumer may perceive this as a poor Wi-Fi experience, even if Wi-Fi is not at fault.
Another key factor is the fact that Wi-Fi is a shared medium and is affected by the consumer’s direct environment and how they use their network – plus their neighbours’ activities – all of which combined, make demands on the network.
Furthermore, the quality of consumer Wi-Fi experience is not constant over time. All the factors mentioned above are continuously evolving, both positively and negatively.
In this paper we have analysed the sudden and major changes to the consumer environment and behaviour as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown measures and their impact on residential Wi-Fi:
- General increase in home Wi-Fi activity as people stay home all day
- Changes in Wi-Fi usage and performance
- More devices and longer connections
- Higher Wi-Fi data consumption
- Surge in upstream connections as video conferencing replaces traditional work meetings and social gatherings
- Video streaming for entertainment and gaming no longer limited to evenings
- Wi-Fi used more in remote areas of the home with poor coverage as families share the available space
- More simultaneous use of Wi-Fi
In the following sections, we will investigate these trends one by one. Our investigation is based on fully anonymized data from residential Wi-Fi deployments in multiple countries that have been affected by the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown.