While telecom operators world over are adopting long term evolution (LTE) technology, the deployments are geographically skewed with wide variations in speed and network availability. While some of the early adopters have managed to expand and improve coverage owing to their first-mover advantage, recent adopters, although lacking in coverage, have been able to achieve faster speeds owing to the improved infrastructure and the adoption of advanced 4G technologies. A few countries have managed to provide high speeds as well as good network coverage.
According to data from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), there were 651 LTE/LTE-Advanced (LTA-A) networks as of January 2018 and about 2.54 billion LTE subscriptions as of December 2017. By 2025, 4G is expected to account for 53 per cent of the global mobile connections, according to GSMA’s “Mobile Economy” report.
In terms of LTE network availability, South Korea and Japan are ahead of other countries. According to OpenSignal’s report, “The State of LTE” (February 2018), which tracks the percentage of time that users have access to a network, customers in South Korea and Japan were able to access LTE networks 97.49 per cent and 94.7 per cent of the time respectively. This is an improvement from the 96.69 per cent and 94.11 per cent availability scores in November 2017. Norway, Hong Kong and the US also figured on the list of countries providing LTE access 90 per cent of the time.
Further, between November 2017 and February 2018, the number of countries that had 4G availability scores of more than 80 per cent, a sign of a well-developed 4G ecosystem, rose from 20 to 30. Approximately 67 per cent of the countries analysed had 4G availability scores of more than 70 per cent. Developing countries are also making major improvements to increase their 4G availability.
Of the 88 countries surveyed in the February 2018 report, countries such as Egypt, El Salvador and Algeria ranked the lowest, with LTE availability being below 45 per cent.
4G speeds depend on several factors such as the amount of spectrum devoted to LTE, new 4G technologies such as LTE-A, network density and network congestion. A general observation is that countries with LTE-A networks are the ones with the fastest speeds.
In terms of speed, Singapore and the Netherlands ranked on top, with average download speeds of 44.31 Mbps and 42.12 Mbps respectively, as of February 2018. While Singapore has retained its lead position, it registered a drop in speed from 46.64 Mbps in November 2017. The Netherlands, on the other hand, moved up from the fifth position and improved its speed from 38.91 Mbps during the same period. Overall, the global average download speed in February 2018 stood at 16.9 Mbps, a slight increase from the 16.6 Mbps three months ago.
In November 2017, only 13 countries had speeds higher than 30 Mbps. Today, 18 countries can boast of speeds higher than 30 Mbps. Further, 60 per cent of the countries had speeds of 20 Mbps or higher, a marked improvement from November 2017, when 55 per cent of the countries had speeds of more than 20 Mbps.
The improvements have been mainly in European countries such as Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Romania, Croatia and Lithuania. Australia and Canada also recorded a big jump in speeds owing to large network investments from Telus, Telstra and Vodafone. The US, which has traditionally had low LTE speeds, registered an increase from 14 Mbps to 16.3 Mbps in a span of only three months.
Rapid deployments of advanced LTE networks and improvements in average speeds over the past year had led the industry to believe that average download speeds would soon cross the 50 Mbps mark. Surprisingly however, download speeds seem to have stagnated at close to 45 Mbps, with the top performers being stuck in that range for the past nine months.
The top performing countries, which have average LTE speeds of more than 40 Mbps, are nowhere close to touching the 50 Mbps mark. Interestingly, speeds in these countries have actually declined. Nevertheless, the breakthrough to 50 Mbps and higher speeds is likely to happen soon, as operators adopt the latest versions of LTE-A.
Voice over LTE
Another benefit of LTE is the converged evolved packet core (EPC), which enables all types of traffic to be carried. So far, more emphasis has been laid on the data applications of LTE while its voice benefits have been neglected. However, voice over LTE (VoLTE) is now being deployed in an increasing number of markets. According to Ericsson, VoLTE services have been launched on more than 100 networks across 55 countries as of June 2017. The global number of VoLTE subscriptions is projected to reach 4.6 billion by the end of 2022, up from about 540 million in end 2017. However, the uptake of VoLTE at present is uneven across regions. In 2016, countries such as the US, Japan, South Korea and Canada experienced strong uptake of VoLTE, with more than 60 per cent of voice calls on LTE smartphones being made using VoLTE. However, Europe witnessed slower uptake since subscribers needed to configure VoLTE settings or purchase a VoLTE subscription. Experience in other countries, including India, shows that automatic operator provisioning helps increase VoLTE uptake. In fact, the availability of affordable VoLTE devices and plans in China and India has also contributed to enhanced adoption of these services.
Different spectrum bands
4G deployments across the globe are being undertaken on different spectrum bands. Lower spectrum bands typically provide better indoor signal strength and travel farther in comparison to higher spectrum bands. However, higher spectrum bands are better to cover densely populated areas where large data volumes need to be processed. Due to this difference, providing seamless global roaming is difficult since supporting multiple spectrum bands increases costs for operators.
Maintenance of multiple networks
The majority of operators who have deployed LTE networks also have other 2G and 3G networks to maintain and support. While upgrading these networks to 4G is a good option, it is also difficult since a large number of worldwide users are still using these older technologies. Making the shift will initially result in revenue losses for operators as well as complexities regarding network refarming.
4G connections generate significantly higher data as compared to 3G or 2G connections. With the increased global uptake of 4G, the demand for data-intensive applications and devices is rising rapidly. Managing such large volumes of data is a challenge for operators.
The way forward
Going by the developments over the past year, it is evident that operators globally are focusing more on extending 4G services to hitherto underserviced parts of their countries rather than on achieving faster download speeds. However, the stagnation being witnessed in terms of average download speeds is not of significant concern. There are still plenty of enhancements in LTE networks that can be implemented by operators to further boost speeds. Of late, Canadian telecom operator Telus has been offering average 4G download speeds of 70 Mbps in Toronto and 62 Mbps in Montreal. Several South Korean and northern European operators have also been providing average speeds of well over 50 Mbps.
Operators have rightly begun with densely populated cities and areas with high data traffic, where the requirement of fast mobile data is crucial. But they must now extend these services beyond urban areas to smaller, more dispersed cities and towns.