In 2017, India witnessed significant proliferation of mobile broadband connectivity, particularly on 3G and 4G networks. The recently released Nokia MBiT Index report highlights this trend, along with other key trends in the mobile broadband space. According to the report, overall data traffic grew by 144 per cent in 2017, with 4G alone accounting for 82 per cent of the traffic. The incumbent operators increased their 4G site base by 115 per cent in 2017. Going forward, 4G is expected to drive the bulk of data traffic as its adoption penetrates beyond metro and Tier I cities.

A snapshot of the key trends highlighted by the Nokia MBiT Index report…

Mobile data usage

  • The total data payload increased 2.4 times from 966 petabytes (PB) in 2016 to 2,360 PB in 2017. Further, the 3G and 4G data payloads increased from 103 PB to 398 PB and from 823 PB to 1,930 PB respectively during the same period.
  • The increase in 4G device penetration, aggressive 4G network roll-outs, lower data prices, and the development of vi­deos and a locally relevant content eco­­system have all contributed to the growth in 4G traffic. Meanwhile, declining data prices, bundled data plans, better coverage footprint, offload of 4G on to 3G, and better device availability have contributed to the growth in 3G payload.
  • The mobile data usage per subscriber on both the mobile (3G + 4G) and fixed/ Wi-Fi networks stood at 5,434 MB per month in 2017, reaching the levels of some developed markets. Further, 4G users on an average consumed approximately 11 GB data per month.
  • The metro and Category A, B and C circles observed a significant decline in 2G traffic and a shift towards 4G. Category A and B circles consumed 37 per cent each of the total 4G data payload, followed by Category C (14 per cent) and metro circles (13 per cent).
  • 3G traffic continued to grow and constituted 18 per cent of the total traffic in Category A, 17 per cent in metro and 17 per cent in Category B circles.
  • 2G traffic declined by 25 per cent in the metro circle, 21 per cent in Category A, 19 per cent in Category B and 17 per cent in Category C circles.

Device ecosystem

  • The installed base of 3G and 4G devices grew by 1.1 and 1.7 times respectively in 2017. Over 90 per cent of the smartphones shipped in 2017 support 4G, highlighting a waning demand for 3G.
  • 4G-capable device penetration at a pan-Indian level increased from 12 per cent in 2016 to 22 per cent in 2017. This trend was visible across all circles. How­ever, metro circles witnessed the highest (31 per cent) penetration of 4G-capable devices.
  • The increasing popularity of voice over long term evolution (VoLTE)-enabled 4G smartphones was another noticeable trend. The number of VoLTE-capable devices was 162 million in 2017, which was equivalent to 74 per cent of the LTE-capable device base.
  • The next wave of growth in the Indian market could come from the untapped base of 500 million feature phone users, who could potentially leapfrog from 2G to 4G.

Consumption pattern

  • Video streaming remained the key driver of data traffic, contributing 65-75 per cent of the mobile data traffic. This was driven by rapid 4G adoption, improvement in network quality (lower buffering), better devices (larger screen size), cheaper data plans and the emergence of over-the-top (OTT) players focused on producing relevant local content.
  • Further, social media contributed 8-10 per cent of the total mobile data traffic. Facebook, with 241 million active users as of July 2017, and WhatsApp, with more than 200 million active users in 2017, are the two most popular social and instant messaging applications.

Network deployment

  • While many Indian operators have already adopted 2-band carrier aggregation (CA) technology, 3-band CA can also be deployed. The deployment of 3-band CA technology with an aggregated downlink bandwidth of 32.5 MHz across the 850 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz LTE bands in circles like Mumbai and Delhi can result in an estimated peak speed of up to 160 Mbps.
  • Operators also started commercial trials and the deployment of 4×4 multiple in­put, multiple output technology in major cities during the second half of 2017.
  • In terms of 5G networks, the focus is currently on sub-700 MHz spectrum bands as a part of the C-band (3.3 GHz). Further, the availability of V-band (56-66 GHz) and E-band (71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz) for backhaul wireless deployment will be pivotal for the proliferation of 5G technology.

The way forward

The increasing adoption of 4G in 2018 will be driven by the availability of affordable LTE handsets and the proliferation of OTT video content in local languages. With a rise in the  availability of affordable VoLTE handsets (which are expected to witness 70-80 per cent penetration in metro cities within a few years), operators will look to offload a significant part of 2G voice traffic on to VoLTE.  Meanwhile, the Indian market is expected to witness the commercial deployment of 5G by 2020. This will be driven by operator investments in virtualised networks and technologies such as LTE-Advanced/LTE-Pro and cloud RAN. 5G would also provide a fillip to the government’s Smart Cities Mission and low-latency use cases of the BharatNet project.