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U.S. Has Poor Cellular Video

Doug Dawson

Opensignal recently published a report that looks around the world at the quality of cellular video. Video has become a key part of the cellular experience as people are using cellphones for entertainment, and since social media and advertising have migrated to video.

The use of cellular video is exploding. Netflix reports that 25% of its total streaming worldwide is sent to mobile devices. The new Disney+ app that was just launched got over 3 million downloads of their cellular app in just the first 24 hours. The Internet Advertising Bureau says that 62% of video advertisements are being seen on cellphones. Social media sites that are video-heavy like Instagram and Tik-Tok are growing rapidly.

The pressure on cellular networks to deliver high-quality video is growing. Ericcson recently estimated that video will grow to be almost 75% of all cellular traffic by 2024, up from 60% today. Look back five years, and video was a relatively small component of cellular traffic. To some extent, U.S. carriers have contributed to the issue. T-Mobile includes Netflix in some of its plans; Sprint includes Hulu or Amazon Prime; Verizon just started bundling Disney+ with cellular plans; and AT&T offers premium movie services like HBO or Starz with premium plans.

The quality of U.S. video was ranked 68 out of 100 countries, the equivalent of an F grade. That places our wireless video experience far behind other industrialized countries and puts the U.S. in the same category as a lot of countries from Africa, and South and Central America. One of the most interesting statistics about U.S. video watching is that 38% of users watch video at home using a cellular connection rather than their WiFi connection. This also says a lot about the poor quality of broadband connections in many U.S. homes.

Among G7 countries the U.S. ranks last for Video Experience – Data collection period Aug 1 to Oct 30, 2018 & 2019 (Source: Opensignal)

Interestingly, the ranking of video quality is not directly correlated with cellular data speeds. For example, South Korea has the fastest cellular networks but ranked 21st in video quality. Canada has the third-fastest cellular speeds and was ranked 22nd in video quality. The video quality rankings are instead based upon measurable metrics like picture quality, video loading times, and stall rates. These factors together define the quality of the video experience.

One of the reasons that U.S. video quality was rated so low is that the U.S. cellular carriers transmit video at the lowest compression possible to save on network bandwidth. The Opensignal report speculates that the primary culprit for poor U.S. video quality is the lack of cellular spectrum. U.S. cellular carriers are now starting to implement new spectrum bands into phones, and there are more auctions for mid-range spectrum coming next year. But it takes 3-4 years to fully integrate new spectrum since it takes time for the cellular carriers to upgrade cell sites and even longer for handsets using a new spectrum to penetrate the market widely.

Only six countries got an excellent rating for video quality — Norway, Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the U.S. is bracketed on the list between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Interestingly, the early versions of 5G won't necessarily improve video quality. The best example of this is South Korea that already has millions of customers using what is touted as 5G phones. The country is still ranked 21st in terms of video quality. Cellular carriers treat cellular traffic differently than other data, and it's often the video delivery platform that is contributing to video problems.

The major fixes to the U.S. cellular networks are at least a few years away for most of the country. The introduction of more small cells, the implementation of more spectrum, and the eventual introduction of the 5G features from the 5G specifications will contribute to a better U.S. cellular video experience. However, with the volume of U.S. cellular broadband volumes doubling every two years, the chances are that the U.S. video rating will drop more before improving significantly. The network engineers at the U.S. cellular companies face an almost unsolvable problem of maintaining network quality while dealing with unprecedented growth.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting
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