Fierce competition between operators has enabled customers in Europe to take advantage of some of the lowest 4G data tariffs in the world, according to a new study by Wireless Intelligence. The findings show that 4G/LTE data costs $2.50 per GB on average in Europe, around half the global average of $4.86.

The first commercial cellular LTE networks were switched on in Europe in December 2009 and there are now 38 live operators across 18 European markets, accounting for almost half of the global total. There were 88 live cellular LTE operators worldwide by the end of Q2 2012, according to the study.

The most competitive LTE market in Europe is identified as Sweden where all four of the country’s mobile operators have launched the next-generation technology. The Swedish market-leader TeliaSonera had an estimated 170,000 LTE connections in Q2, accounting for almost 3 percent of its total subscriber base, while rivals 3 Sweden, Telenor and Tele2 have also launched LTE services (the latter two via a network-sharing joint-venture known as Net4Mobility).

As a result, a Swedish 4G data contract can cost as little as $0.63 per GB per month (at both Tele2 and 3 Sweden). By comparison, the best value 4G data tariff at the world’s largest LTE operator, US market-leader Verizon Wireless, works out at $7.50 per GB.

There is also substantial LTE competition in Germany, Portugal and Austria, with at least three LTE networks live in each country.

The study found that operators in Europe have used the deployment of LTE to overhaul their mobile broadband pricing models. In particular, many operators struggling with overloaded networks have taken the opportunity to phase out unlimited data deals in favour of speed-based offerings tied to data allowances in an effort to more effectively monetise mobile data.

Over 90 percent of the LTE operators surveyed in Europe were found to use a speed-based element in their LTE tariffs, even though this type of pricing is rarely seen elsewhere in the world.

The model is typically used by European operators to price mobile broadband offerings regardless of the underlying technology used; typical advertised maximum speeds are 7.2 Mb/s, 14.4 Mb/s (HSPA), 42.2 Mb/s (HSPA+) and 100 Mb/s (LTE), though several operators market more realistic speeds rather than the top speeds.

Tariffs are then priced in line with the advertised speeds. At 7.2 Mb/s, a 10 GB monthly allowance costs $23 on average, rising to $44 for an 80 Mb/s service (the highest speed at which a 10 GB plan is available). At the other end of the scale, an unlimited plan costs $35 at 7.2 Mb/s rising to $70 at 80 Mb/s.

Conversely, at a per GB level, the average price of data decreases as network speeds increase. The average cost per GB at 7.2 Mb/s in Europe is calculated at $6.20, dropping to around $1.15 per GB at 80 Mb/s (LTE). This is because the maximum speed rates for mobile broadband tend to be packaged with the largest monthly data allowances.

The new pricing strategies used for LTE in Europe has meant that LTE has usually been marketed as a standalone ‘4G’ service. This is in contrast to markets such as the US where LTE is usually offered as part of a wider mobile broadband package that typically includes 3G connectivity.

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