The State of LTE (February 2016)

Though it’s been six years since the first LTE network reared its head, the technology’s momentum continues to surprise us. Operators worldwide are pushing the upper boundaries of LTE speed, and coverage continues to expand to the point that in several countries 4G networks are now as ubiquitous as the 3G networks that preceded them.

That progress, however, is proceeding at different rates in different parts of the world. Some countries like South Korea and Singapore have managed to build networks unrivaled in both technology and reliability, while others have mastered only one half of that network calculus. No other large countries have managed to build the vast 4G infrastructures the U.S. and Japan have deployed, yet American and Japanese LTE networks can’t match the speed offered by most of the world’s 4G operators. Meanwhile smaller countries from New Zealand to Romania have built 4G networks of breathtaking quickness but with limited availability. Overall, though, there’s no question that LTE is progressing. Even over a period of months, we see clear evidence that LTE coverage and speeds are improving.

OpenSignal collects its data from millions of smartphone owners through its apps. That crowdsourced data goes into building our coverage maps as well as our analytical reports (for a more detailed explanation, see our general methodology page). For this report, we drew data from the hundreds of thousands of OpenSignal users that have LTE-capable phones and connect to operators with live 4G networks. That data was collected in the three months between October and December, but we also included our results from the previous three months for comparative purposes.

The Full Spectrum of LTE


This quadrant graph provides a look into the overall performance of the world’s global LTE operators, factoring in both average network speeds and network availability. Operators that fall in the upper right-hand portion of the graph provide faster speeds and a more consistent LTE signal, while those in the lower left-hand quadrant have slower speeds and less consistent coverage. We think this is one of the best ways of capturing the overall performance of an individual network. After all, the value of a fast LTE connection is diminished if you only have access to that connection half the time.

South Korea and Singapore have set themselves apart from the main body of global operators, providing both superior coverage and speed.

As can easily be seen from the plot, South Korea and Singapore have set themselves apart from the main body of global operators, providing both superior coverage and speed. The biggest standouts were South Korea’s Olleh and Singapore’s Singtel. Olleh excelled in coverage, but also provided one of the fastest connections speeds in our report, 34 Mbps. Meanwhile Singtel hit the 40 Mbps mark in speed while still maintaining a coverage rating of 86%. There are other notable country clusters in the upper right-hand quadrant as well, for instance operators from the Netherlands, Canada and Hungary.

Meanwhile, other countries have staked positions for themselves in specific regions of the plot. U.S. and Kuwaiti operators are tightly clustered in the lower right, meaning they offer excellent coverage but poor 4G speeds. Japan and Taiwan congregate in the middle far right with their exceptional coverage but only average speeds. Most of New Zealand and Romania’s operators hover at the center top of the chart, indicating impressive bandwidth but a general lack of availability.

In general the lower left-hand quadrant is dominated by developing countries or by operators just a year into their first 4G rollouts, and there are even a few operators that provide exceptional speeds coupled with mediocre coverage. But most of the operators we tracked for this report fall into a fairly distinct zone, marked by coverage ranging from 40% to 75% and speeds between 8 Mbps and 25 Mbps. That’s where the vast majority of European and South American operators have claimed their turf. Most of the major international operator groups also occupy that central cluster, though a few multinationals had standout networks, notably Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and SingTel.

What’s most interesting, however, are the differences in the plot graph between the third and fourth quarter. In terms of coverage there is a noticeable shift to the right in the graph between quarters as dozens of operators made big improvements to their 4G footprints. We’re still a long way off from achieving 4G ubiquity across the globe, but LTE coverage is clearly improving at a rapid clip.

Global LTE Coverage Comparison


The proportion of time users have an LTE signal, or LTE 'Time Coverage' (*), is our proprietary metric for looking at coverage holistically, instead of just as a measurement of geographical reach. Time coverage measures the proportion of time users spend connected to a particular network, whether they’re indoors or out, on the move or standing still. We represent time coverage as a percentage, so if an LTE network has 80% time coverage, that means its customers, on average, can get an LTE signal 80% of the time. For more details on how we calculate coverage, see OpenSignal’s methodology page.

LTE Coverage by country

LTE Coverage by network

Note: Whilst we list network measurements in order of highest to lowest, these are meant to be indicative not absolute ranks of overall performance. They don't take into account the margin of error in the statistical analysis. In our country-level State of Mobile Networks reports we take those statistical variations into account, and in cases where the confidence boundaries of two or more networks overlap we point out a statistical draw. For this State of LTE report our numbers are meant to provide a general snapshot of 4G around the world, not to compare the performance of individual operators against one another.

South Korea continues to set the standard for LTE availability, providing a near ubiquitous 4G signal to the country’s highly saturated mobile market. The coverage standard bearer in Korea is LG U+. Its 4G customers were able to see an LTE signal 99% of the time. Many of the top performers in network availability were in geographically small yet densely populated countries, particularly in East Asia -- Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea -- but also the Netherlands and Kuwait.

Europe in particular is still leaning heavily on its extensive 3G infrastructure. In Germany, Italy, France and the U.K., the chances a 4G subscriber will connect to an LTE network are little better than a coin flip.

Countries that are able to provide an LTE signal more than 80% of the time are a rare breed though -- only eight countries surpassed that mark, according to our measurements. The newest country to enter that club is the U.S. which had a time coverage metric of 81%. That the U.S. accomplished this feat is all the more impressive in light of its geography. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to build a highly available network in a more densely packed country like South Korea or in a city-state like Singapore than in a country spread across a continent. (For more analysis on the U.S., see our separate State of Mobile Networks: USA report.)

After five straight years of 4G rollouts, we’re starting to see LTE reach maturity in several markets. In countries with the most extensive 4G footprints, LTE coverage is nearly on par with 3G coverage, and in South Korea and Japan, 4G availability has actually exceeded 3G. In those two countries you stand a slightly better chance of connecting to an LTE network at any given moment than you do to an HSPA or CDMA network.

The rest of the world has a long way to go before 4G and 3G reach parity. Europe in particular is still leaning heavily on its extensive 3G infrastructure. In Germany, Italy, France and the U.K., the chances a 4G subscriber will connect to an LTE network are little better than a coin flip. The obvious exception is northern Europe (where LTE was born in 2009). Sweden, Norway and Finland all scored time-coverage numbers greater than 75%, and the Netherlands has some of the most highly available 4G networks in the world.

Global LTE Speed Comparison


LTE Speed by country

LTE Speed by network

Note: Whilst we list network measurements in order of highest to lowest, these are meant to be indicative not absolute ranks of overall performance. They don't take into account the margin of error in the statistical analysis. In our country-level State of Mobile Networks reports we take those statistical variations into account, and in cases where the confidence boundaries of two or more networks overlap we point out a statistical draw. For this State of LTE report our numbers are meant to provide a general snapshot of 4G around the world, not to compare the performance of individual operators against one another.

We continue to see average 4G speeds trend higher across the world. In the fourth quarter, Singapore had the fastest networks by far, averaging 37 Mbps, and two of its operators SingTel and StarHub joined Canada’s SaskTel in vying for the title of world’s fastest operator (though we calculated different speeds for all three, due to the margin of error it was a statistical tie). But those networks weren’t mere aberrations. We’re seeing a much greater number of ultrafast networks around the world. A year ago, an average 4G speed of 20 Mbps would have been a truly impressive feat, but today there are 15 countries and 52 individual networks that meet or exceed that mark.

A year ago, an average 4G speed of 20 Mbps would have been a truly impressive feat, but today there are 15 countries and 52 individual networks that meet or exceed that mark.

This inflation of speed is really two distinct trends. On the one hand established LTE countries like Singapore, South Korea, Denmark, Hungary and Australia are plowing more resources into their networks. They’re adding capacity by deploying LTE on new frequency bands, and bonding those disparate bands together with new LTE-Advanced technologies. The result is not just greater capacity -- allowing more users to tap consistently fast connections -- but a big increase in peak speeds as users get access to more of a network’s overall bandwidth. Some of these network improvements could provide benefits to their operators for years to come. As customers gradually trade out their older LTE smartphones for newer LTE-Advanced smartphones, they will only see network performance improve.

The second trend is what we like to refer to as the “new network effect”. We’re seeing a lot of new 4G networks come online in the last year in South America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and some of them are debuting with some impressive speeds. New networks tend to be light on subscribers, but as operators sign up more 4G customers, speeds slow down as more devices compete for LTE resources.

That leaves us with a distinct group of countries such as the U.S., Japan and Sweden that were among the first to launch LTE but have clearly lost their edge in speed. It’s not that those countries have stopped investing in LTE infrastructure; both Japan and the U.S. are in the top 10 when it comes to building out 4G coverage, while Sweden ranks 13th. However, due to lack of spectrum, lack of technological innovation or just sheer network oversubscription, they’ve failed to keep pace as other countries push mobile broadband speeds ever higher.

LTE Vs Wifi Speed Comparison


LTE speed compared to other mobile technologies (2G & 3G) and Wifi globally

The global average for LTE download speed is now 13.5 Mbps, up almost a full megabit from our State of LTE report released in September. That’s more than double the average speeds we’re seeing on smartphone Wifi connections as measured from data collected from our Wifimapper app. That doesn’t mean LTE is a superior technology to Wifi -- the most powerful 802.11ac networks can deliver connection speeds in excess of 1 Gbps -- but it does show how variable Wifi speeds can be around the world. Wifi performance is largely dependent on the wired broadband connection providing its link to the internet, so countries with powerful residential and business broadband networks tend to have much faster Wifi speeds. Still, at 13.5 Mbps, LTE is far from the 25 Mbps bar that many governments use to define broadband. It may not be until the 5G age that mobile data connections truly become mobile broadband connections.

The global LTE rollout


Reset zoom
04/2015
148
Countries with LTE
10
LTE scheduled

Hit play or move the slider to see the evolution of LTE

In the four months since our last State of LTE report, three new LTE countries have debuted on the global scene: Belarus, Benin and Nicaragua. That brings the total number of LTE markets up to 148. You can use the interactive map above to see where the world’s 4G networks currently reside and when future networks are (or were) scheduled to go online. Click the “Play” button to see how LTE has spread globally since its introduction six years ago.

Methodology notes


At OpenSignal we rely solely on crowdsourced data to compile our reports. As opposed to drive test data, which simulates the typical user experience by using the same devices to measure network performance in a small number of locations, we take our measurements from millions of smartphones owned by everyday people who have downloaded the OpenSignal app. Those measurements are taken wherever our users happen to be, whether indoors or out, in a city or in the countryside. While drive testing is good at measuring the geographic extent of a network, through crowdsourcing OpenSignal is able to get a better idea of the general reliability and availability of a network. We can measure how signal and speed change in particular areas over long periods of time. The same place you received a stellar 4G connection at one time could turn into a practical dead zone a few hours later if nearby cell towers become congested.

The data in this Global LTE report comes from 357,924 global OpenSignal LTE users, who have contributed data during the three month period between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. We also included data from the previous three month period for comparison purposes. When we published our last Global LTE report in the fall, we took our sample from the June-to-August period so third-quarter data in this report won’t line up with the previous report’s numbers. All of the data comes from users of the OpenSignal Android app; iOS data is not currently included.

Networks for which we have data were only included if the volume of collected data was above our threshold for statistical confidence. Any networks that fell below this threshold were excluded from the rankings. As with any statistical system there is always a margin of error, which we refer to as a confidence interval. In some cases, we can’t make direct comparisons between two or more networks because their confidence intervals overlap. In those cases, we point out a statistical draw.

For the country averages we included all valid tests from within a particular country, including tests from networks we excluded from our individual operator analysis. This explains why the countrywide averages may not appear to match up with the displayed networks from that country.

This is just an overview of the main methodology decisions. For more information, we prepared a detailed explanation of the specific methodologies we used for this report.

(*) Editor’s note: In June of 2016, OpenSignal changed the name its time coverage metric to network availability. Availability measures the same thing as time coverage — the proportion of time users remain connected to a particular network — but we felt that "availability" was a better reflection of the metric’s definition. For more details see our methodology page.

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