In 2018, 4G overtook 2G to become the leading mobile technology in the world, as per the GSMA Mobile Economy report. With 3.4 billion connections, 4G accounted for 43 per cent of the total mobile connections globally. This can be attributed to the widespread adoption of affordable smart devices and the increasing demand for better connectivity. In 2019, 4G connections are expected to account for more than 50 per cent of the total global connections as per the report.
In North America, 4G connections held the majority share of 69 per cent in the total mobile connections during 2018. In Europe and Asia-Pacific, 4G accounted for 46 per cent and 45 per cent of the total connections respectively. Meanwhile, the share of 4G was 35 per cent in Latin America, 23 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), 19 per cent in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and 6 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although 4G network deployment gained significant ground during the year, it faced challenges such as inconsistent speeds and network congestion. One of the possible reasons for speed variations is that cellular networks are shared networks. As the demand for 4G connections increases, network capacity gets distributed among users, which reduces the average 4G speeds. Network congestion on current 4G networks also impacts speeds.
Apart from this, providing seamless international roaming on 4G is difficult for operators as the technology is deployed in different spectrum bands in every country. Supporting multiple spectrum bands increases the cost for operators.
Voice over long term evolution (VoLTE) is witnessing significant traction. According to Ericsson’s mobility report, there are around 1.4 billion connections across the world. VoLTE services are operational across 155 networks in over 75 countries. Further, more than 1,800 VoLTE-enabled device models are available in the market.
VoLTE is being deployed using cloud and network function virtualisation technologies, which support cost-efficient network operations. Moreover, globally connected VoLTE services are being built. For this, more than 20 service providers have signed VoLTE roaming agreements and over 10 operators have entered into national and international voice interconnect agreements.
The next-generation 3GPP (Third-Generation Partnership Project) standardised voice code Enhanced Voice Services (EVS), also known as HD voice+, is also gaining traction. This service provides improved audio and music quality on VoLTE-capable devices, and better call reliability across long term evolution (LTE) and Wi-Fi. More than 150 HD voice+-enabled devices are available in the market, and 15 service providers have launched this service.
Further, cellular smartwatches, which are VoLTE-based voice calls enabled, were launched by more than 50 service providers in 2018. Meanwhile, video calling over LTE (ViLTE) has been launched by over 20 service providers. Further, more than 220 device models are available to provide this service. Other VoLTE-based services include Wi-Fi calling, voice in internet of things devices, multi devices such as smartphones, smartwatches and smart speakers.
According to a February 2019 report by Opensignal, the average 4G download speeds (across the 77 countries covered in the report) were in the range of 5.8 Mbps (slowest hour of the day) and 31.2 Mbps (best hour of the day) during 2018. A total of 43 countries recorded speeds higher than 30 Mbps, while 27 countries recorded speeds higher than 20 Mbps. The remaining recorded speeds less than 20 Mbps.
During the fastest hour of the day, South Korea and Switzerland had the highest 4G download speeds at 55.7 Mbps and 55.5 Mbps respectively. They were followed by the Netherlands, Singapore and Norway with 4G download speeds of 54.9 Mbps, 54.7 Mbps and 53.5 Mbps respectively. The countries with the lowest 4G download speeds during the fastest hours of the day were Thailand, India, Nigeria, Algeria and Bangladesh with speeds of 11.7 Mbps, 14.6 Mbps, 16.2 Mbps, 16.4 Mbps and 16.9 Mbps respectively.
Further, during the busiest hour of the day, Singapore and South Korea recorded the highest 4G download speeds of 41.4 Mbps and 40.8 Mbps respectively, followed by the Netherlands, Norway and Canada at 38.9 Mbps, 38.5 Mbps and 34.1 Mbp respectively. Meanwhile, Algeria, India, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand recorded the lowest download speeds during the busiest hour of the day at 2.6 Mbps, 3.7 Mbps, 3.7 Mbps, 5.7 Mbps and 6 Mbps respectively.
In terms of average speed, South Korea and Singapore recorded the highest average 4G download speeds at 47.1 Mbps and 45.4 Mbps respectively, followed by Norway, the Netherlands and Australia at 44.1 Mbps, 43.1 Mbps and 38.2 Mbps respectively. On the other hand, Algeria, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Cambodia reported the lowest 4G download speeds of 5.8 Mbps, 6.5 Mbps, 8.2 Mbps, 8.6 Mbps and 8.6 Mbps respectively.
In terms of variation in speed, Canada, the Czech Republic, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Qatar, Singapore, South Africa and South Korea experienced little variation in speeds throughout the day, indicating a high degree of consistency in speed regardless of the hour. In fact, the Czech Republic had the most consistent download experience out of the 77 countries analysed. The 4G download speed in the region fell by only 3.3 Mbps at the slowest time. On the other hand, Algeria, Cambodia, Belarus, India and Chile experienced the maximum variation in their speeds.
Given its high uptake and massive potential, 4G is expected to become a dominant technology in the years to come.
Given its high uptake and massive potential, 4G is expected to become a dominant technology in the years to come. By 2025, it is expected to account for 59 per cent of the global mobile connections.
Region-wise, by 2025, 4G is expected to account for 68 per cent of the total connections in CIS, 67 per cent in Asia-Pacific, 65 per cent in Latin America, 52 per cent in MENA, and 24 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly, in North America, the share of 4G in the total connections is expected to decline from 69 per cent at present to 44 per cent by 2025, as the region will move towards 5G.
In the coming years, leading operators will extend their 4G services beyond urban areas to the underserved parts of countries. They will also have to augment the capacity of their 4G networks in order to address network congestion and speed variation issues. Meanwhile, the number of VoLTE subscriptions is projected to reach 6 billion by the end of 2024, accounting for around 90 per cent of the combined LTE and 5G subscriptions.