The mobile industry may be focused on the next generation of mobile networks, with initial 5G rollouts coming as early as the end of the year, but surprisingly more connections still run over 2G networks than 4G or 3G infrastructure.
GSMA Intelligence (GSMAi) figures covering Q3 2017 showed 41 per cent of global connections ran on 2G networks, 29 per cent on 3G and around 30 per cent on 4G at the close of the quarter.
North America accounted for the highest percentage of 4G connections (68 per cent), followed by Europe (40 per cent), Asia Pacific (36 per cent) and Latin America (23 per cent).
While 4G coverage may seem to be ubiquitous in developed markets across the world, LTE penetration is in single digits in the least developed regions – just 4 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa and 9 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa. The majority of mobile connections in these two regions are still on 2G systems (62 per cent and 48 per cent respectively). About 60 per cent of operators in these areas have launched LTE networks, but uptake of the high-speed service lags expectations.
Despite 4G accounting for less than one third of total mobile connections, LTE technology enjoyed strong growth, with connections jumping from less than 100 million at end-2012 to 2.6 billion at end-2017. An important reason behind the growth is rising data speeds, with the global 4G average downlink rate hitting 16.2Mb/s in 2017, OpenSignal data showed.
China, the world’s largest mobile market by a big margin, was a key driver of growth in LTE connections. The country broke the 1 billion LTE connections mark by end-2017, accounting for 40 per cent of the global total. The big three mobile operators added 245 million LTE connections during 2017: China Mobile, the largest mobile operator in the world, alone added 115 million 4G subscribers, taking its total to 649.5 million and giving it LTE penetration of 73 per cent.
A total of 636 mobile operators had deployed 4G networks by end-Q3 2017, GSMAi said. In Europe 149 operators run 4G networks, while in Asia 116 companies have deployed the technology.
In many countries, 4G coverage already equals or exceeds the reach of 3G, but on a global basis the latest technology remains slightly behind, with an estimated 72 per cent of the world’s population able to access an LTE network in Q3 2017 (up from 64 per cent a year before) compared with 85 per cent for 3G. The coverage figure clearly shows the huge potential for growth in LTE adoption, which is increasing by 44 per cent annually compared with zero or negative growth for 3G and 2G connections.
The first 5G services may be just months away, but the upside for 4G deployments will continue to be strong well into the next decade. GSMAi forecasts 3.17 billion 4G connections by end-2018, a gain of about 575 million from 2016. It will take a least a decade for 5G to hit those numbers.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.