WiFi is not always best

I own a Nexus 4. Aside from a few niggles with the camera and distinctly average battery life, my phone is great. Particularly as someone who uses Google services, the user experience is pleasant and if feels like everything is working for you.

Well, almost everything. I find myself constantly fighting the phone over network connections – specifically when the phone should connect to available WiFi networks. The switch to WiFi appears extremely aggressive: as soon as a known network is within reach the phone automatically connects, regardless of the strength of the connection, the availability of internet access from the network, or – and here’s the kicker – what I’m currently doing.

Often I will be walking around Bristol, chatting with friends and family on WhatsApp or Google Hangouts whilst using mobile internet. I’ll walk past a cafe I’ve visited before and my phone switches to its WiFi network, stopping that message I was about to send. I swipe down and turn off WiFi. Later on, I’ll be home checking Facebook/Reddit/Hacker News/Any Other Time Sink and be frustrated that all these images are loading so slowly – I need to see that cute kitten now damnit – until I realise WiFi is still off. So I swipe down and re-enable.

Why is this so frustrating? Well, firstly because it is so common: it probably happens multiple times a day. Secondly, it all feels very preventable:

  • My phone is aware I’m moving(1)This doesn’t even require high battery GPS; the constant change of networks is sufficient. Why jump on a new WiFi network that is likely to drop out of range?
  • Instant messaging is a very low bandwidth activity. I really don’t care about saving my data allowance. I’m with giffgaff and have a generous data plan(2)My allowance is 3GB/month. I used to be on an unlimited data plan but I don’t mind the new cap. I rarely hit 1GB and a limited data plan allows me to tether, which is occasionally useful to me
  • Surely the phone could at least test that WiFi network actually provides internet access before connecting? Many networks are unprotected but require a login after connection. This is particularly true of the large, national networks with many hotspots around a city. Inevitably, these are the biggest problem.

Although the phone provides an option to ‘avoid poor connections’, this doesn’t seem to help much(3)If anything, it just makes thigns worse. It feels like another setting to fight with: there’s been too many times when I have wanted to connect to a network with a weak signal.. Perhaps I could use one of these apps that only enables WiFi at home and and work? Maybe, but this is definitely not tackling the problem and only fixes some of the symptoms. When I visit my friends or parents, I want to use their WiFi network. When I’m actually in a cafe, I might want to use their network. And particularly at work, which for me is actually an entire university campus, WiFi may not be providing me with a good internet connection at any given time. For me, the fix is this:

Use mobile internet unless there is a real reason not to

Where reasons include:

  • The user has indicated that they much prefer WiFi networks, e.g. because they have a small data plan
  • There is a stable connection to a known network that also actually provides a better internet connection
  • The activity I want to perform is high bandwidth. This is the time for my phone to say “hey, there’s a connection that might work, but you’ll need to log in”
  • Mobile internet coverage or speeds become poor

Doing this requires the phone to take account of how I’m currently using my phone – Am I moving? What’s my network usage look like at the moment? – as well as testing a WiFi connection before switching to that. Is that really so hard?

 

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1. This doesn’t even require high battery GPS; the constant change of networks is sufficient
2. My allowance is 3GB/month. I used to be on an unlimited data plan but I don’t mind the new cap. I rarely hit 1GB and a limited data plan allows me to tether, which is occasionally useful to me
3. If anything, it just makes thigns worse. It feels like another setting to fight with: there’s been too many times when I have wanted to connect to a network with a weak signal.

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