LTE is getting slower, but at least there’s more of it: report

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ITEM: LTE coverage is becoming more widespread around the planet – but overall data speeds are getting slower. The good news is that this is not bad news.

The latest global “State Of LTE” report from OpenSignal, issued last week, pinpoints a couple of key trends, the first being that out of 77 countries studied, 50 of them registered 4G availability scores above 70% (meaning that 4G users in those countries were able to connect to LTE in at least 7 out of every 10 tries). Six months ago, only 33 countries passed that mark.

That’s a sign that 4G has reached maturity in many more countries, OpenSignal says.

That’s the good news. The bad news – which is not necessarily bad news, but bear with us a moment here – is that the growth in LTE data speeds the industry has been witnessing over the past few years has not only hit a wall, but speeds are starting to get slower.

As some cellcos may want to argue this point in the name of pride and/or marketing, it’s worth highlighting at this point the operational definitions OpenSignal uses for these reports. In essence, OpenSignal is talking about country-wide trends, not individual operators. For example, the report says that no country has managed to break the 50-Mbps barrier yet, with South Korea and Singapore coming closest, averaging 45.9 Mbps and 46.6 Mbps, respectively. That’s not to say no individual cellco has managed to offer speeds above 50 Mbps. It means the market as a whole is not consistently providing LTE connections at 50 Mbps or higher.

It’s also worth noting that OpenSignal gets its data on connection speeds from smartphones collecting that data with the OpenSignal app, not by drive tests – which also means the data is collected wherever the user happens to be at the time, which may include locations that are not conducive to really fast connection speeds (in a basement in the countryside, say).

According to the report, growth in LTE speeds has apparently stalled out. The number of countries occupying the 40-Mbps bracket remains unchanged since the last report, and the number of countries that averaged speeds greater than 20 Mbps has actually dropped. Which suggests that despite the latest advances in LTE technology, we’re not seeing faster average speeds as a result.

Luckily, says OpenSignal, this is not a bad thing, and is likely the result of the mobile industry having reached a plateau in network evolution:

4G’s first movers in the developed world have built out their LTE-Advanced infrastructure and are now focused on bringing all of their customers to these new high-powered networks. Meanwhile, in the developing world operators have largely completed their initial LTE rollouts and are turning their 3G customers into 4G customers. Consequently we’re seeing much more of a focus on availability than speed. The more people that can tap into the LTE signal, the more potential LTE or LTE-Advanced users operators can sign up.

The OpenSignal report also points out that slowdown in data speeds doesn’t translate into a corresponding decline in experience quality for users – particularly in markets where users are migrating from 3G to 4G. In such cases, users are typically spending a lot more time using LTE than they did with 3G.

The report reckons that we’re likely to see this trend continue until the next iterations of LTE-Advanced (on both the network and handset side) become available, after which we’ll see a new surge of growth in data speeds.

You can see the full report, with a bunch of fancy interactive graphics, right here.

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