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Why India’s 4G LTE availability is high, but speeds remain low

India’s 4G LTE availability rate—the proportion of time users have access to 4G—is growing at a faster pace but at the cost of tragically low average speeds.

Wireless mapping company OpenSignal said in its ‘The State of LTE 2017’ report that 4G availability rate in India was at 81.56%, driven by “a rare instance in which a single operator (had an) outsized impact on a mobile market in just a short time”. However, LTE speeds in India are low when compared to other countries: among 75 nations, India stood second last with an average 4G speed of just 5.14 Mbps. On the other hand, in terms of 4G LTE availability, India took 15th spot.

There are several factors which can affect delivery and speed of 4G LTE networks in a region, and as per Open Signal, following factors are directly correlated to LTE speeds:

1)“How much spectrum is devoted to LTE”: Remember that during 2016 spectrum auctions, telcos boycotted bidding for the premier 700 MHz spectrum meant for LTE, citing high prices.

2)“Whether it (country) has adopted new 4G technologies like LTE-Advanced”: As of now, Airtel claims to have deployed LTE-Advanced (basically LTE v 2.0 with better speeds). Airtel combines 2300 MHz and 1800 MHz spectrum for LTE-A. New entrant Jio was also reportedly testing this, but there is no official word on this yet. Note that, smartphones also need to support LTE-A capabilities, without which an LTE-A network is unworkable.

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3)“How densely networks are built and how much congestion is on those networks:” There have been allegations of artificial PoI blockade, which led to a significant increase in call drops between Jio customers and incumbents. Between 2015-16 call drops issue affected most operators in India. While telcos have argued in the past that stringent quality norms (for mobile networks) are irrelevant for India.

In India, 4G speeds are not much higher than 3G

Open Signal also pointed out that “while LTE is making its way into more countries, many of these new networks in developing markets lack the capacity of their developed-world counterparts.” Pointing out at the last two countries with lowest speeds (Costa Rica and India), the report said that average 4G speeds in these countries are only “marginally faster than the average global 3G connection.” At that same time, India telcos are starting to invest heavily into 4G after Jio’s entry. This helps onboard new users, but at cost of lower network speeds. In fact, the rate at which new users additions have gone up in countries like India also affects global average 4G speeds, points out Open Signal.

“As these countries ramp up their 4G services they’re bringing hundreds of millions of new LTE subscriptions online. That’s one of the reasons we saw a drop off in average global LTE speed. We measured the typical LTE connection worldwide at 17.4 Mbps in November, but in our latest test period (between Jan 2017 to March ’17) that average fell to 16.2 Mbps.”

Note that, in India, Jio added 100 million user in a short time, bringing up availably, but due to faster additions, networks get congested leading to lower average speeds. But India isn’t the only country facing this. “Two of the first countries to adopt 4G, the U.S. and Hong Kong, have built extensive LTE footprints, but support average speeds lower than the global average,” the report added.

Report sample sizes

Measurements: 19,556,514,365
Test Devices: 558,260
Sample Period: Jan 1st – Mar 31st 2017
No of countries: 75



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