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The State of LTE in Latin America

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Today OpenSignal released its latest State of LTE report, examining the 4G progress of 77 countries around the world. It just so happens that the GSMA's Mobile 360 Series Latin America conference kicked off this week, an event in which OpenSignal CEO Brendan Gill is participating. We felt this was an excellent time for an update on the evolution of 4G in Latin America.

While our State of LTE report covers more than a dozen Latin American countries, we decided to drill down on the seven countries we publish in-depth analyses on each year: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru. These seven countries offer a snapshot of the overall 4G trends across the region. For comparison purposes we've drawn on data not only from today's report but our previous two State of LTE reports published in June 2017 and November 2016 respectively.

First let's examine 4G availability, which tracks the percentage of time 4G users in a country have access to an LTE signal. As you can see from the chart above, 4G availability is on the rise in all of our focus countries -- and not just in incremental steps. In all seven, availability scores rose by at least 5 percentage points year over year, and in a few cases we saw some spectacular jumps. In Argentina, LTE availability increased from 64.2% to 73.5%, more than 9 percentage points in 12 months. Meanwhile we saw nearly 8 point jumps in Argentina and Peru's scores.

Overall, 4G availability in Latin America hasn't surpassed the 80% mark, which generally marks a mature LTE country with widespread 4G service reach, but Peru is starting to get close to that mark. Our users in Peru were able to latch onto an LTE signal more than 75% of the time. Mexico was close on Peru's heels though. It's clear that operators in many countries are investing heavily in expanding their networks to make their 4G services more consistently accessible. But there are still some countries behind the curve, most notably Brazil and Costa Rica.

Next, let's look at 4G speed, which we've tracked in six-month increments in the chart below. The good news is that several countries in Latin America are home to powerful LTE networks. Mexico and Brazil both averaged 4G download speeds in excess of 20 Mbps in our latest tests. Meanwhile, four of the seven countries had 4G speed scores above the global average of 16.6 Mbps. Of the three that fell short, Chile was barely shy of that benchmark with an average download of 16.5 Mbps, but Argentina and Costa Rica clearly have some catching up to do. In Costa Rica, average download speeds were 7 Mbps, only a few megabits faster than your typical 3G connection.

The trend in 4G speed, however, isn't one of rapid improvement like we see in our availability metric. Instead LTE speeds appear to be holding steady in most of our seven focus countries, and in a few cases speeds have fallen off. The only country to see a sizable improvement in 4G speed in the last year was Costa Rica. Meanwhile we saw drop offs in Peru, where average downloads fell by 3 Mbps, and Chile, where speeds fell by 2 Mbps.

This shouldn't set off any alarm bells just yet. It's a trend we often see in developing markets. As operators roll out their initial LTE systems, those networks are often lightly loaded as most customers haven't yet made the transition from 3G to 4G services. But as more customers start signing up for 4G, networks become increasingly congested, causing average speeds to fall. What we're likely seeing is 4G reaching a kind of equilibrium in Latin America. Operators are balancing network investment with customer acquisition. As they load up their networks with more 4G users, speeds will likely continue to fall, which in turn will trigger a new wave of upgrades, pushing speeds back upwards.

It's also important to note that while speeds may have stalled or even fallen in Latin America, that doesn't mean the customer mobile data experience has suffered. The big ramp up in 4G availability means consumers in Latin America have access to LTE connections far more often than they did a year ago. They are spending far less time on 3G connections, which are typically four to five times slower than their 4G counterparts. Chile is a perfect example of this counterintuitive trend. In our September State of Mobile Networks: Chile report, we tracked a big drop off in LTE speeds from three of the country's four major operators, triggered by a massive influx of new 4G subscribers in 2016. But while Chile's average 4G speed fell, its 4G availability skyrocketed. The end result: overall mobile data speeds improved as consumers were able to link to 4G networks much more consistently.

If you happen to be at the Mobile 360 event in Bogotá, be sure to check out Future Networks conference session at 9 AM Wednesday. Brendan will be moderating a panel of heavyweights from the region, including Tigo Colombia CEO Marcelo Cataldo and senior executives from 3C Interactive, América Móvil, Ericsson, Google, GSMA, Telecom Argentina and Telefónica.