Lag stress: a major disorder of the 21st century?

When it comes to broadband, most people tend to focus on maximum speeds… Download speeds, upload speeds… And I certainly include myself in that comment, as I presented last week at the FTTH Council MENA conference some results of our report ‘Gigabit and beyond: pricing and positioning strategies’. Other aspects of a broadband product are however important, and experiments tend to prove that subscribers do perceive changes in them.

I’m more particularly thinking of the quality and stability of the connection. It is often overlooked and most people think that, apart from a few extreme cases, it is mostly irrelevant. Fortunately, Ericsson published the results of an interesting study on the matter in its 2016 mobility report.

With the help of a neuroscience consultancy, the company observed the reactions of smartphone users when faced with varied level of network performance. By monitoring the brain activity, eye movements and heart rate, an indicator was designed to reflect the stress of the users while they browsed the web and watched video clips. The goal of the experiment was to measure how the duration and extent of delays impacted emotional engagement and stress.

And the results are simply astonishing; the poor subjects seem to have been pretty upset with the experiment. When faced with delays in the loading of web pages or videos, users experienced dramatic increases of their heart rates and levels of stress:

  • On average, single delays resulted in
a 38 percent increase in heart rate’;
  • A medium delay of 2 seconds when loading videos led to average stress levels to go from 13 percent to 16 percent above the baseline’;
  • Once a video started to stream, a pause due to re-buffering caused stress levels to further increase by 15 percentage point‘.

To illustrate the findings of this study, the measures were compared to those of distressing situations in everyday life. The impact of delays was similar to that of watching a horror movie, and greater than waiting in a check-out line at the grocery store! It seems pretty extreme, but everyone knows how infuriating it can be to see the loading icon in the middle of an episode.

Even though this study focused on mobile users, delays and instability have similar impacts on fixed broadband users. It could actually be even more impactful, as the poor quality of an end user’s connection is more likely to be consistent over time.

Now think of the impacts of such levels of stress in the long term: high blood pressure? Heart related conditions? Higher likeliness of nervous breakdown? Such a way of looking at the impact of poor quality of connections certainly brings a whole new perspective on the usual broadband issues: digital divide, affordability gap, investment in network upgrade… It brings up rather unconventional questions:

  • Should operators who under-invest in networks (at least in aggregation ones) be taxed to fund social security?
  • Can governments justify doing nothing regarding the digital divide?
  • Should social security fund social tariffs for broadband?
  • How will users react when facing poor broadband quality in the future, with even more latency sensitive or bandwidth hungry services?

It’s certainly too early to find answers to these questions. It is however not too early for service providers to take charge of quality issues, and even to take advantage of them. In the case of Ericsson’s study, the delays influenced how the users perceived their service provider: participants who faced no delays showed a net increase in brand engagement, while those who faced medium and high delays showed neutral or negative brand engagement. And some providers already use the question of lag stress to promote their (better quality) services, as can be seen in this funny video advertising about gigabit access from the Swedish operator Umea Energi. More info about TV commercials for broadband access can be found in our report ‘Advertising the fiber experience’.

At the very least, these example show that there is a growing expectation from end users for instantaneity in their Internet uses, and an always lower tolerance threshold to faults and quality issues. This represents an opportunity for service providers, which can be addressed with the launch of gigabit services or even with custom routing services to lower latency.