2017 was the year 4G exploded in India. One of the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, India’s current mobile data subscriber penetration stands at 40%, expected to double to 80% by 2022 according to Crisil’s predictions. But while lower generation wireless technologies are still occupying a fair share of the mobile data space, LTE services have taken the leading role in the unprecedented increase of data users in the past year, in large part thanks to a single operator, which I’ll address more in a moment.
The emergence of 4G brought with it free voice calls and low-cost data plans leading to a big boost in data usage. As more consumers received access to 4G connections, a new wealth of applications requiring fast speeds opened up to them, further driving up data consumption.
During the quarter ending June 2017, total data usage stood at over 4.2 million terabytes, out of which 4G data accounted for 3.9 million TBs, according to TRAI. The growth is most visible when checking the numbers from a year ago, when 4G data usage stood at a mere 8,050 TBs; that’s a 500-fold increase.
But being the second largest telecom market in the world with a booming 4G scene means India has its fair share of hurdles it needs to address to continue its upward trajectory.
Among the top 15 in LTE availability worldwide
As we saw in our latest State of LTE report, published in November, LTE availability in India is remarkable: users were able to connect to an LTE signal over 84% of the time, a rise of over 10 percentage points from a year earlier. This places India ahead of more established countries in the 4G landscape such as Sweden, Taiwan, Switzerland or the U.K.
Among the key mobile operators providing 4G services, Jio — which made its debut just over a year ago — has been greatly responsible for advancing the adoption of 4G services in the country. Barely 6 months in the market, Jio already secured its lead in the 4G availability race with our users able to access its LTE signals 91.6% of the time, according to our national report published in April this year. No other mobile operator managed to score higher than 60% in these tests. Six months later, we saw significant improvements in availability across all major operators, with Vodafone and Airtel both increasing their scores by 2 percentage points, and in the case of Idea we saw scores jump by 4 percentage points. But those improvements weren’t enough to close the gap with Jio, which was able to provide an LTE signal at a jaw-dropping 95.6% of the time in the same test period.
Jio’s widespread 4G access, along with its at-first free and later heavily discounted data and voice plans, quickly won the hearts — and wallets — of more than 100 million mobile users across the country.
With operators rolling out low-cost data plans to grow their consumer bases, and manufacturers launching affordable 4G smartphones enabling a greater slice of the population to get connected, we expect 4G availability to maintain its rising trajectory across the country.
4G speeds cannot keep up with demand
While LTE availability saw a meteoric rise, the same cannot be said of 4G speeds. In our latest State of LTE report, India occupied the lowest spot among the 77 countries we examined, with average download speeds of 6.1 Mbps, over 10 Mbps lower than the global average.
A key reason for the strikingly low speeds is the rapid increase in 4G users across all the networks. As 4G adoption rose, and more and more consumers subscribed to 4G services, the networks experienced congestion, resulting in a decrease in average download speeds across the board. 4G users on the networks of Idea, Vodafone and Airtel all witnessed a drop in average 4G download speeds over the course of 2017.
Meanwhile Jio trended the opposite direction in 4G speed. In our April report Jio had the slowest 4G speed in our India tests, but as soon as Jio’s freebie plan ended in April 2017, we recorded an astonishing 50% increase in their speed (from 3.9 Mbps to 5.8 Mbps) over the course of six months, which still placed Jio at the lowest end of the speed spectrum but with a significantly narrower gap.
India’s 4G future – what will 2018 bring?
India’s mobile data ecosystem has experienced tremendous growth in the past years, and recent trend reports suggest nothing less for the years to come. With operators continuing their investments in LTE, manufacturers launching affordable 4G-enabled smartphones and the government’s focus on creating a connected society, the various pieces of the connectivity puzzle are gradually falling into place.
But how will India’s mobile users experience 4G in 2018?
Jio’s market entry kicked off an intense price war in the telecom scene resulting in offerings of cheaper LTE services from all operators, driving more consumers to 4G than ever before, a trend we expect will continue next year. Whether Jio remains the huge dominant driver in 4G growth remains to be seen. After a year of free and steeply discounted data pricing, Jio may make 2018 the year it raises prices. That could level the playing field for India’s operators.
In addition, the expected consolidation of the telecom market will likely lead to several operators combining their spectrum holdings, which could provide India the necessary boost in speed. These more powerful combined networks would provide more capacity as well as support more sophisticated LTE-Advanced technology, increasing average speeds available to consumers.
2018 will see India gradually move away from being a developing 4G country; overcoming the hiccups necessary to become a full-grown 4G power.