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18 February 2016

Ericsson finds horror story in smartphone streaming delays

In the Mobile World Congress edition of its Mobility Report, Ericsson has found that streaming delays and outages lead to dramatic jumps in the viewer’s stress levels. What a surprise.

Using “neuroscience technology,” later identified as a wireless electroencephalography (ECG) test combined with pulse monitors and eye-tracking equipment (but not a next-gen Nielsen box as we might have hoped), Ericsson suggests that the streaming performance of a service will significantly impact the viewer’s perception of the provider.

It sounds like pure common sense, but it’s interesting to see some science thrown at it to determine exactly how rage-inducing dropped frames and stuttering pictures can be. But from our experiences the entire cellular industry has known this for about 5 years.

Broadly, Ericsson found that delay-free experiences triggered positive emotional responses in viewers, and increased brand engagement for mobile operators. Delays and pauses were linked to rises in stress levels, especially when under time pressure – where Ericsson found that the delays could lead to heart rates rising an average of 38%, as viewers waited to see the content they had selected but were met with stuck or blank screens.

Six-second delays in video streaming led to stress levels rising by a third, which Ericsson says is equivalent to moving from a rest state level of activity to the sorts of stress levels usually encountered by those watching horror movies or undertaking math tests. Additional pauses in the stream only lead to higher stress levels.

On the other hand, operators can avoid the weeping, wailing, and lashing of thumbs sending nasty emails to customer service or helpdesks by providing a stress-free experience. The Net Promoter Score (an oft-criticized customer service metric) of an operator rose significantly in these environments, and conversely dropped to around the same extreme if there were delays in the stream.

So if the stream goes off without a hitch, the NPS climbs around 4.5 points. With moderate time-to-content-viewing times and re-buffering delays, the NPS of the operator will fall around 4 points. Ericsson also found that the fall in the NPS was doubly punishing for operators, as those consumers reported increased engagement with their rivals – meaning that poor streaming is potentially enough to make customers jump ship.

While the ECG and heart rate monitoring are an attempt to measure the objective reality of smartphone-based media consumption, anecdotal and personal experience isn’t hard to come by. It can be incredibly frustrating to experience poor performance on flagship handsets connected to next-generation networks.

The perceived value of the service and hardware that the consumer is paying for is tarnished when it doesn’t work correctly – as the immersion is shattered and the loss of that intangible value to the consumer is frustrating. Whether it’s the $800 phone or the $80 monthly charge for cellular access, at those price points, customers expect immaculate reception – and MNOs are pretty good at dropping the ball in that regard.

It would have been useful, if admittedly a lot more complex, had Ericsson thrown in a couple of other benchmarks in there to measure the phone-frustration against a home-invasion or lion-ambush for instance. While users will get very frustrated with their phones, a report like this could use a little context and perspective when introducing apparently scientific measurements.

As for the other findings of the Mobility Report itself, Ericsson said that social media networking traffic was forecast to grow in the next six years to be 12 times that of the previous six years – second only to video.

In Q4 2015, Ericsson reports that 68 million mobile subscriptions were added, with India adding the most with 21 million, with China in second place on 6 million additions, and the US in joint-third place with Myanmar after adding 5 million.

The total number of mobile subscriptions in Q4 2015 was listed as 7.3 billion – that is, 100% penetration, meaning that there is one sub for each person on the planet. Of course, there are still around 2 billion people who have no internet connection, but this is a sign of the potential scope for expansion that online content platforms have in the emerging markets –  especially as developed markets begin to stall in terms of ARPU growth and subscriber additions.

The global mobile data traffic grew 65% from Q4 2014 to Q4 2015, according to Ericsson, with LTE subscriptions passing the one billion mark in the quarter, with approximately 160 million LTE additions in Q4 2015.

The streaming research is perhaps likely to lead the Ericsson push towards LTE Broadcast, something it has long been a fan of.