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As unlimited data plans grow more popular, Wi-Fi loses its dominance

Lulu Chang
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Folks across the U.S. are ditching Wi-Fi in favor of unlimited wireless. That, at least, appears to be the conclusion that OpenSignal has drawn in its latest report published this week. As major cellphone service providers continue to re-introduce unlimited data to their content-hungry customers, it looks like folks are spending more time surfing the web on their phones in Wi-Fi free zones, rather than looking for free Wi-Fi to connect to.

As per OpenSignal’s data, time on Wi-Fi has fallen for three out of the four major carriers (the big four being Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint). The top two carriers, AT&T and Sprint, actually saw the greatest reduction in time spent on Wi-Fi, proving that as more folks opt for unlimited data, they care less about saving data by ducking into Starbucks at every opportunity. Instead, they’re just relying on their 4G and LTE networks.

To be fair, OpenSignal is not observing drastic reductions in Wi-Fi time — AT&T and Verizon both saw 3-point reductions, from 52 percent to 49 percent, and 54 percent to 51 percent, respectively. T-Mobile customers spent 41 percent of their time on Wi-Fi, down from 43 percent a year ago. Only Sprint stayed steady at 51 percent.

“As competition in the U.S. market grows, all four operators have launched competitive unlimited data plans, and as more and more customers migrate to these plans, users are likely becoming more confident about consuming data over cellular networks without worrying about racking up big bills,” OpenSignal noted in a blog post explaining the results.

And although more significant decreases in time spent on Wi-Fi were observed for AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile customers actually spend the least amount of time on Wi-Fi. This isn’t all that surprising, given that the company has offered unlimited plans for more than five years, and has been particularly vocal about its cap-less plan this year.

But as more people spend more time on data rather than Wi-Fi, there are some negative consequences. In OpenSignal’s most recent State of Mobile Networks: USA report, both AT&T and Verizon saw drops in their 4G speeds. T-Mobile still leads in both 4G speed and availability metrics, and alas, Sprint has stayed in last place (though it’s making gains of its own).

Even as Wi-Fi use appears to decline, it doesn’t mean that these networks are ever going to fully disappear. After all, data-intensive activities still require Wi-Fi, and most people still would rather connect to Wi-Fi while at home on their computers than depend upon a hot spot. Still, as unlimited data plans continue to evolve, we’ll have to see how much longer Wi-Fi maintains its relevance.