Analysis: How Brits connected in a year of change

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Analysis released by UK multiplay operator Virgin Media O2 reveals the impact of a tumultuous year of highs and lows on the nation’s connectivity habits across mobile, broadband and TV networks.

In a year that saw a third national lockdown, a summer of freedom and then the emergence of omicron and new restrictions, as well as unexpected sporting triumphs and major gaming launches, the one thing that remained constant was the nation’s reliance on technology.

Virgin Media O2 saw its biggest ever year for data use on both broadband and mobile networks, as more people than ever went online to chat, stream, share and game. In 2021, customers downloaded 19 per cent more broadband data than the previous year, with mobile traffic up 45 per cent year on year.

Following analysis of tens of millions of customers from January 1st – December 10th  2021, Virgin Media O2 reveals the consumer connectivity habits that shaped 2021.

Gaming became the new going out

Lockdown supercharged our nation of Twitchers, Fortniters, Roblox and FIFA players, with people stuck at home using more data than ever for gaming. New releases of Call of Duty, Fortnite and Apex Legends drove huge data use spikes in February and March, leading to some of the busiest days for broadband traffic.

But even after the nation regained its freedom in July, gaming on Virgin Media’s broadband network continued to rise with lockdown habits dying hard. December 5th marked the biggest data download day, driven by the hotly anticipated release of Fortnite Chapter 3, while Warzone Caldera and Halo Infinite, which dropped 13 hours apart, caused evening traffic to surge to the second highest levels ever on December 8th, as gamers scrambled to get their hands on the new releases.

Symptoms of pandemic fatigue set in

After months of doom and gloom tuning into the Government’s daily Coronavirus briefings, Brits showed increasing signs of pandemic fatigue this year, watching 15 per cent less news than a year ago.

Fed-up of COVID, the nation’s attention turned instead to the return of live sport, which resulted in a 24 per cent growth in Sports viewing. The busiest days of TV viewing were linked to some of the biggest sporting moments early in the year including the India vs England Test Cricket, FA Cup clashes and The Super Bowl. And in early December, Premier League matches streamed on Amazon Prime drove the busiest evening peak of the year, with broadband traffic up 34 per cent on average, and 24 per cent higher than the previous year’s events.

WFH weariness to hybrid bliss

Analysis from Virgin Media’s broadband network revealed Brits downloaded on average 18.9GB of data per day between January and February 2021 – a 52 per cent increase on pre-pandemic levels1 – to help them navigate home-schooling and the mandate to work from home.

As we finally connected IRL, we took the chance to refresh our socials

But taking advantage of this new-found freedom took time to plan. Google app usage peaked between June and August as people searched for inspiration online, while an analysis of Google search data by Virgin Media O2 showed a 174 per cent uplift in searches for ‘Staycation’ over the last year.

The data highs and lows of the year 

  • The ‘Peak Netflix’ day– the release of Squid Game drove the most Netflix traffic on October 3rd with traffic to the streaming service jumping 27 per cent over previous weekends.
  • October was ‘Peak TikTok’ month – TikTok usage continued to grow over 2021, despite lockdown ending. The app has continued to see growth across 2021, with O2 customer usage at its highest – at nearly 7 per cent of all app usage – in October.
  • The ‘Peak Shopping’ day– Black Friday boost for Amazon and PrettyLittleThing. Online retailers Amazon and PrettyLittleThing were given a Black Friday boost. According to O2 mobile usage, Amazon saw 85.21 per cent increase in data traffic in the week leading up to Black Friday with data traffic doubling on the day, while PrettyLittleThing saw a midnight surge, as customers shopped on the go to secure their Black Friday bargains.
  • Focused fans – England Euros fans switched off their devices as heartache set in. As the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 Championship kicked off, fans put down their devices to concentrate on the games. Virgin Media’s broadband network saw significantly lower levels of internet usage during England’s matches, with the biggest drop coming during the final, with customers downloading 28 per cent less traffic compared to the previous week, as fans were rendered speechless.
  • Bank holiday digital detox, as we all finally got outside. The quietest day for data uploads on the O2 mobile network was 30thMay as Brits put down their devices to enjoy the warm bank holiday weekend.
  • “TGIF and the kids are back at school”. The first ‘back to school’ Friday on the 10th September was the quietest day for broadband data downloads, as Brits headed out for a celebratory weekend of fun.

“This has been another rollercoaster of a year and our digital behaviours reflect that,” notes Jeanie York, Chief Technology Officer, Virgin Media O2. “Amidst another lockdown and varying restrictions, we’ve seen a sustained growth in demand for our services as customers have made a long-term shift to hybrid-working, and we’ve seen the explosion of online gaming – all of which enhance our need for ultrafast and reliable connectivity across our fixed and mobile networks.”

“The data is clear that these changes are long-lasting: even as we regained our freedom, we continued to connect with friends and family. Whatever 2022 has in store for us, we’re fully prepared to keep the country connected with the things they love,” she confirms.


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