4G is the talk of the town, but buffering is still a reality in India! The average 4G LTE data speed in India has remained static for more than a year — at about 6.1Mbps — which is almost a third of the global average of about 17 Mbps, making it among the slowest countries on this metric.
Even as the big telcos step up 4G deployment, brace for 5G and talk of offering fibre-based home broadband at starting speeds of 100 Mbps soon, data junkies have little reason to cheer.
India’s 4G download speeds are even slower than that of neighbours Sri Lanka (13.95 Mbps), Pakistan (13.56 Mbps) and Myanmar (15.56 Mbps), according to UK speed tester OpenSignal. They are much lower than developed markets such as the US (16.31 Mbps), UK (23.11Mbps) and Japan (25.39 Mbps).
US data speed tester Ookla has ranked India 109th — almost at the bottom in its list of 124 nations — on overall mobile internet speeds, with an average download speed of 9.12 Mbps, which is way below the 23.54 Mbps global average. Ookla’s mobile internet speed test results for any country include measurements of various networks — 2G, 3G and 4G.
OpenSignal analyst Peter Boyland told ET that the comparatively slower speeds in India are due to the “astronomical growth in terms of smartphone penetration in India, with millions of new users connecting to its mobile networks every month”.
Ookla spokesman Adriane Blum said another possible reason behind India’s slower mobile internet speeds is the challenge of serving an extremely dense population.
“With more people using the internet at any given time, network congestion can certainly be a factor,” Blum wrote in response to ET’s queries. Experts said a country’s 4G speeds also hinge on how much spectrum is devoted to LTE, whether it has adopted new 4G technologies like LTE Advanced, how densely networks are built and congestion levels.
“The spectrum per operator in India is low compared to other countries, which affects 4G network speeds,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India.
He added that “spectrum per subscriber also remained comparatively low, due to high population.” The COAI represents top telcos such as Bharti AirtelNSE 0.91 %, Vodafone India, Idea Cellular and Reliance Jio Infocomm.
Mathews also blamed low 4G data speeds on “the frequent shutting down of internet across the country by law enforcement agencies, challenges in securing permissions to install vital telecom infrastructure and even undue tower shutdowns by municipal bodies.”
However, ex-Bharti Airtel CEO Sanjay Kapoor said the current pricing and generous quantum of data on packs offered by telcos, amid continuing price wars, are “probably a lot more than what present networks are designed to handle, which can spoil customer 4G experience in terms of speeds and pervasiveness.”
Another possible reason, he said, is that barring Jio, which is the sole pure 4G player, big telcos continue to run multiple mobile technologies. Accordingly, most networks, he said, “are not offering contiguous 4G coverage, which is why, mobile signals can drop off from 4G to 3G to 2G to fill the 4G gaps that, in turn, can impact speeds and experience.”
Some analysts partly ascribed the phenomenon to higher latency levels of Indian telcos. Latency is a measure of the delay that users experience when their computers/smartphones try to access internet servers.
“In India, Vodafone had the lowest latency in our measurements, with a response time of 66.4 milliseconds, but that’s still relatively high as most operators around the world tend to fall within a range of 30-50 milliseconds,” said an OpenSignal spokesperson.
Lower latency connections typically mean webpages load faster and videos start playing sooner. The telcos said they are stepping up site capacity and investing in advanced technologies to boost 4G speeds. A senior Idea Cellular executive said the carrier recently deployed spectrum sharing technology that “allocates airwaves dynamically between 2G and 4G networks based on traffic demand.”
Bharti Airtel and Vodafone India are deploying pre-5G Massive Mimo technology, which is slated to boost network capacity by 5-7 times over the existing spectrum resources.
Airtel has already invested in carrier aggregation technology, while Idea is in the process of doing so. The technology allows carriers to use different spectrum bands on the same network and key benefits are low latency levels and a 50% cut in delays between click and download.
At press time, Vodafone India, Airtel and Reliance Jio did not reply to ET’s queries.