Are Rio de Janeiro’s mobile networks ready for the Olympics?

Last month OpenSignal released its State of Mobile Networks for Brazil, but given the 2016 Summer Olympics are less than a year away, we thought it a good idea to drill down into that data to see how the host city, Rio de Janeiro, performed specifically. Next summer, hundreds of thousands of people will descend on Rio, and you can bet they’ll want to text, Tweet and Instagram their experience to the world.

The good news is that Rio’s mobile networks are in decent shape. The country’s five major operators generally provided better 3G and 4G coverage and speeds in Brazil’s second largest city than the offered to the country as a whole.

3G/4G Coverage

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Let’s start with coverage. While there are still some places in Rio where OpenSignal’s app could only detect a 2G signal, the city’s mobile data infrastructure is widespread. The country’s fourth largest operator Oi scored the lowest, providing a 3G or better connection only 71 percent of the time. All of the other operators had coverage numbers over 80 percent, with Nextel able to provide a 3G mobile data link a whopping 96 percent of the time.

LTE Coverage

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There are still some sizable gaps in Rio’s LTE coverage, though it’s important to remember that 4G is still relatively young in South America. While our nationwide report found that no operator could provide an LTE signal more than half the time, several of those operators offered considerably better coverage in Rio itself. Vivo customers with LTE phones were able to connect to the 4G network 66 percent of the time, while Claro customers’ connection rate stood at 60 percent. Nextel’s LTE network, which only went online in June, is already beating out Oi and TIM’s in terms of coverage.

LTE Download Speeds

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LTE may not be available everywhere in the city, but where it is, speeds are definitely impressive. Claro, Oi and Vivo averaged download speeds over 17 Mbps, which places their networks among the fastest in the world — at least for the time being. As more Brazilians trade out their 3G smartphones for LTE versions, we’ll likely see average 4G data rates fall as more devices compete for the same capacity. Nextel was the big exception in this category. Though it’s built considerable 4G coverage in Rio, its total data capacity appears to be severely limited. It averaged just 2.8 Mbps in 4G download tests.

3G Download Speeds

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When mobile users fell out of LTE coverage onto the 3G network, speeds dropped off dramatically, though four of the five operators were able to supply a 1 Mbps or greater connection. And even in places where 3G wasn’t available, Brazil’s operators were able to provide some kind of signal in most cases. The amount of time mobile users spent without any network connection whatsoever was 3 percent or lower in all cases, and Vivo performed particularly well in this category. Its customers were at a loss for signal only 1.6 percent of the time.

Time With No Signal

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Brazil’s operators still have another year to prepare before Olympic athletes and fans hit Rio en masse – and they’ll probably need the time. Though Rio’s mobile infrastructure seems in good shape today, nothing can quite bomb a network like playing host to a major global sporting event. In particular you can expect to see Brazil’s fast 4G speeds take a hit as both more Brazilians and an influx of tourists load up the country’s new LTE networks.

That said, there’s plenty Brazil’s operators can do to bolster their networks in the next 11 months. They can add more LTE coverage and bandwidth by upgrading more towers and adding more 4G capacity to existing towers. They could surgically add capacity to key Olympic venues and neighborhoods using small cells and Wi-Fi. And when the Olympic events actually kick off, they’ll likely deploy temporary towers (cells on wheels) throughout the city to handle the additional traffic. U.K. operators seemed to cope quite well with the onslaught during the 2012 Olympics in London. Let’s see if Brazil’s can do the same.

For this analysis, OpenSignal extracted all tests conducted by users with our Android and iPhone app within the city limits of Rio de Janeiro, which encompasses all 32 Olympics competition venues and the four principle neighborhoods where the games will be focused. In all, we took 13.3 million measurements from 7,353 different smartphones over a three-month period between May 1 and July 31.

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