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UK now a smartphone society

August 6, 2015

Smartphones have overtaken laptops as the most popular device for getting online, Ofcom research has revealed, with record ownership and use transforming the way Britons communicate.

Two thirds of people now own a smartphone, using it for nearly two hours every day to browse the Internet, access social media, bank and shop online.

Ofcom’s Communications Market 2015 finds that a third (33 per cent) of Internet users see their smartphone as the most important device for going online, compared to 30 per cent who are still sticking with their laptop.

The rise in smartphone surfing marks a clear shift since 2014, when just 22 per cent turned to their phone first, and 40 per cent preferred their laptop.

Smartphones have become the hub of Britons’ daily lives and are now in the pockets of two thirds (66 per cent) of UK adults, up from 39 per cent in 2012. The vast majority (90 per cent) of 16-24 year olds own one; but 55-64 year olds are also joining the smartphone revolution, with ownership in this age group more than doubling since 2012, from 19 per cent to 50 per cent.

The surge is being driven by the increasing take-up of 4G mobile broadband, providing faster online access. During 2014, 4G subscriptions have leapt from 2.7 million to 23.6 million by the end of 2014.

UK users now spend almost twice as long online with our smartphones than on laptops and personal computers. On average, mobile users spent nearly two hours online each day using a smartphone in March 2015 (1 hour and 54 minutes), compared to just over an hour spent online by laptop and PC users (1 hour and nine minutes).

But this is still only half of the 3 hours and 40 minutes speni in front of the TV each day.

4G users are doing more

Smartphone users with 4G are shopping online more than those without 4G (55 per cent of 4G users do this compared with 35 per cent of non-4G users); banking more online (55 per cent versus 33 per cent); watching more TV and video clips online (57 per cent versus 40 per cent); making more face-to-face and voice calls over the Internet (28 per cent versus 20 per cent); sending more photos and videos via text (49 per cent versus 36 per cent); and instant messaging more with services such as WhatsApp (63 per cent versus 50 per cent).

At least one 4G mobile broadband service is now available to 89.5 per cent of UK premises, with four in ten people (42 per cent) able to choose from all four 4G providers – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. The mobile operators continue to expand their 4G networks, and Ofcom rules mean that 98 per cent of premises will have an indoor 4G signal from at least one operator by 2017.

Today, indoor 2G mobile voice coverage reaches 98 per cent of people’s homes and offices. But that still leaves 2 per cent, or half a million premises, without a signal.

Ofcom wants to see the widest possible availability of communications services and is considering what further options might be available to improve coverage, both mobile and fixed-line broadband, as part of the

In the coming months, Ofcom will publish maps enabling consumers to compare operators’ mobile coverage throughout the UK. The maps will enable users to zoom to a specific location, or simply enter a place name or postcode, and receive data on coverage for each mobile network – down to 100 square metres.

Sharon White, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “Today’s report shows just how important reliable, fast Internet access is to millions of consumers and businesses. Improving the coverage and quality of all communications services across the UK is a priority for Ofcom, for people at work, home or on the move.”

James Thickett, Ofcom Director of Research, said: “4G has supercharged our smartphones, helping people do everything from the weekly shop to catching up with friends with a face-to-face video call. For the first time, smartphones have overtaken laptops as the UK’s most popular Internet device and are now the hub of our daily lives.”

Selfies and storage

Smartphones now take more photos than any other device, including digital cameras, with 60 per cent of adults saying they use it most to take a snap, rising to almost nine in ten (89 per cent) of 16-24 year olds. Just over one in five adults (22 per cent) mostly use their digital camera.

People in the UK took an estimated 1.2 billion ‘selfies’ in the past year. Nearly a third (31 per cent) of UK adults admit to taking a selfie, with one in ten (11 per cent) doing so at least once a week.

But not everyone is taking care of their digital snaps, with less than a third of adults (31 per cent) backing up all their digital photos. Perhaps surprisingly, 16-34 year olds are the most careful, with 36 per cent of this age group backing up all their digital pics, compared to just 29 per cent of people aged 35 and older.

This may reflect the fact that those aged 35 and over are more likely to have framed photos on the mantelpiece. Seventy per cent of them have their favourite photos on display, compared to half (52 per cent) of 16-34 year olds.

Mobile manners

Mobile phones may be a permanent fixture in our daily lives, but tweeting or updating social media status when sitting down to dinner remains a no-no for most people.

Over half of people (55 per cent) think it’s unacceptable to pick up your phone alongside your knife and fork. Yet four in ten people (42 per cent) admit to checking their phone at the dinner table.

Over a third of adults (34 per cent) turn over and check their phones within five minutes of waking up. For young people, checking social media messages before breakfast is even more crucial – around half (49 per cent) of young people aged 18-24 check their phones within five minutes of waking up.2

But despite our increasing mobile use, birthday greetings still require more than a text message.

The traditional card sent through the post remains the most popular way to say ‘Happy Birthday’, with two fifths (38 per cent) of people choosing to hand write their birthday wishes, compared to 15 per cent using social media and just 7 per cent sending a text message.

Time online doubles in a decade

Increasing take-up of smartphones and tablets is boosting time spent online. Over half of UK households (54 per cent) now have a tablet, a rapid rise in popularity from just 2 per cent in 2011.

Ofcom research shows that Internet users aged 16 and above said they spend nearly 10 hours (9 hours and 54 minutes) online each week in 2005. It had climbed to over 20 hours and 30 minutes in 2014.

2014 saw the biggest increase in time spent online in a decade, with Internet users spending over three and a half hours longer online each week than they did in 2013 (20 hours and 30 minutes in 2014, compared to 16 hours and 54 minutes in 2013).

Overall, people think their time online is bringing benefits. Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of online adults agree that being online is invaluable for keeping them informed about current issues, and six in ten (60 per cent) agree it helps keep them in touch with close family and friends.

But people overwhelmingly prefer to catch up with friends and family over a cup of tea. Almost seven in ten (69 per cent) prefer to chat with family face-to-face, and 64 per cent prefer to speak to friends this way, compared to just 3 per cent who prefer social media for staying in touch.

TV viewing habits are changing

People’s growing reliance on smartphones and tablets appears to be affecting TV viewing.

Most 16-24 year olds are watching on-demand and catch up programmes on computers and smartphones rather than on a TV connected to a set-top box. Nearly six in ten young people (57 per cent) regularly watch on demand and catch-up TV on their laptop or PC. Almost half (45 per cent) watch on a smartphone, and four in ten (40 per cent) switch on a set-top box.

On smartphones, short-form video clips are even more popular than watching a film or TV programme: 42 per cent of people say they watch short videos from services including YouTube, Instagram Video and Vine on their phone, compared to 21 per cent watching a film or TV programme.

But, despite the growth in online viewing, TV still reaches the overwhelming majority of people. Over 90 per cent (92 per cent) watch TV each week, down slightly from 93 per cent in 2013.

However, we are spending less time in front of the TV. On average we spent 3 hours and 40 minutes a day watching on a TV set in 2014, 11 minutes less than in 2013 and the second consecutive year of decline.

The greatest drop was seen among children (aged 4-15), falling by 12 per cent from 2 hours and 14 minutes in 2013 to 1 hour and 58 minutes in 2014. Those aged 25-34 watched nearly 9 per cent less, from 3 hours and 5 minutes to 2 hours and 49 minutes while 16-24 year olds watched 6 per cent less TV, from 2 hours and 28 minutes to 2 hours and 18 minutes.

Summary of key market developments

  • Over the past five years, average monthly household spending on communication services has decreased in real terms, from £122.07 in 2009 to £117.71 in 2014 – representing a monthly decrease of £4.36, or £52.32 per year.
  • General satisfaction levels with communications remains high: 86 per cent of adults are satisfied with their broadband, both fixed and mobile.
  • 91 per cent of adults are satisfied with their mobile service, and 89 per cent with their fixed-line phone.


  • Total telecoms revenues fell by 2 per cent to £37.4 billion in 2014, largely as the result of falling wholesale service revenues.
  • Fixed Internet revenue growth accelerated as a result of increased fibre take-up. Retail residential and SME fixed Internet revenues totalled £4.9 billion in 2014, up from £4.2 billion in 2013.
  • Almost four in five households now have fixed broadband and around one in three of those are superfast lines delivering broadband speeds of 30Mbit/s or above.
  • By May 2015, 83 per cent of UK premises were able to receive superfast broadband.
  • There are now 23.6m 4G subscriptions in the UK, 28 per cent of mobile subscriptions, compared to just 3 per cent (2.7 million) in Q4 2013.
  • SMS use fell for the second consecutive year, from 129 billion messages in 2013 to 110 billion messages in 2014, largely due to increasing smartphone take-up and use of Internet-based communications.
  • Newer online methods of communications are gaining significant levels of reach among online adults. Social media (62 per cent), instant messaging (57 per cent) and VoIP calls/video (34 per cent) are used by many people for communicating with friends and family. Picture messaging services are used by a third of online adults for communicating with friends and family (34 per cent) and a quarter use Twitter (24 per cent).


  • The UK TV industry generated £13.2 billion in revenue in 2014, an increase of 3.1 per cent year on year.
  • Pay-TV subscription revenues were up 1.9 per cent from £5.9 billion to £6 billion in 2014.
  • Online TV revenue increased by 38 per cent in 2014 to £793m, with income from online TV subscriptions increasing by 53 per cent to £317 million, according to data from IHS.
  • Among adults, the TV is the device people say they would miss the most, cited by close to four in ten (37 per cent).
  • Over half (56 per cent) of UK TV homes had a TV connected to the Internet, either via a set top box or smart TV, by the end of 2014, according to research from media consultancy 3 Reasons.


  • Total industry revenue and spending increased by 3.6 per cent to £1.2 billion in 2014. Commercial radio revenue grew by £22 million to £483 million and spending by the BBC increased by £20 million to £725 million.
  • On average, nine in ten adults (89.5 per cent) tuned into the radio in 2014 and spent just over three hours listening each day (3 hours and 3 minutes). This is down by six minutes per week on average year on year.
  • Digital listening accounts for 39.6 per cent of all radio listening, up by 2.8 percentage points year on year.
  • 332 local radio stations, 227 community radio stations and 8 UK-wide radio stations were broadcasting on analogue in May 2015. There were 25 UK-wide stations on DAB.
  • Among regular music listeners aged 16-24, streaming services are as popular as radio stations. Around two fifths (39 per cent) of this age group use streaming services to listen to music, similar to the proportion who listen to music on the radio.

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