Airtel and Jio trade leads in India's overall speed race

As the 4G race in India continues to heat up, it's perhaps an opportune time to look at an OpenSignal metric that doesn't get quite the attention as 4G speed but is arguably far more important to Indian consumers. I refer to overall download speed, which accounts for not just the average 4G speed of an operator, but also 3G speed and the availability of different types of network. The reason why overall speed is so important to consumers is that it measures the typical speeds smartphone users actually experience on a day-to-day basis. While 4G download speed might tell you what kind of connection you'll get when linked to your operator's optimal network, overall download speed describes the type of connection you'll get across its 3G and 4G networks.

For this analysis, we decided to track the overall download speeds of India's four major 4G providers over the 10 three-month test periods preceding our recent State of Mobile Networks: India report. As you can see from the chart above, Airtel, Idea, Jio and Vodafone have all taken different paths in their overall speed journeys.

The first thing we notice is that through the summer of 2017 overall speeds for Airtel, Idea and Vodafone were all relatively steady, but in September something happened that starts sending their overall download averages upwards. What we're seeing isn't an increase in LTE speeds or even 3G speeds -- both metrics stayed relatively static over the last year. Instead, the three operators began expanding the reach of their LTE networks. Our 4G availability scores for all three operators increased significantly for all three operators in those 10 months. As more customers had access to faster LTE connections more often, overall speeds for Airtel, Idea and Vodafone increased accordingly. We saw the most dramatic improvement in overall speed in Airtel's and Idea's scores, both jumping by almost a megabit between May 2017 and February 2018. As a result, Airtel climbed into the lead in our overall speed metric in December, passing Jio, while Idea pulled itself even with Vodafone in the same timeframe.

Now let's look at Jio's trend line, which has followed the opposite trajectory in our chart. We would expect Jio to follow a much different path from its competitors because the makeup of their networks are quite different. As a 4G-only operator, Jio's overall speed score depends solely on the download speeds of its 4G connections. Luckily there's no lack of such connections in India. In our most recent India report, our Jio users were able to find an LTE signal more than 96% of the time. The flip side of that equation is that if Jio's 4G speeds suffer due to capacity problems, its overall speeds suffer as well. In Jio's case, our results show a big spike in overall download speeds in May, June and July last year, pushing it past Airtel. That speed boost most likely represents network upgrades that boosted capacity on Jio's LTE network. Once that new capacity was in place, Jio's overall speeds began to level off in our measurements and then gradually drop throughout the rest of the year as customers began consuming that new bandwidth. Jio ended February in second place in our overall speed metric, behind Airtel but ahead of Idea and Vodafone.

It will be fascinating to see how this race in overall speed between Jio and Airtel plays out in the coming year. If Jio can pull another 4G network upgrade out of its hat, it could once again boost its overall speeds beyond Airtel's. But Airtel isn't sitting still. As it improves its network reach, bringing LTE connections to customers more often, its overall speed will likely continue to climb. In short: Jio's growth in overall speed will almost certainly come in big spurts, while Airtel's growth will probably be much more steady. And let's not discount Vodafone and Idea. Any improvement in 4G speed or 4G availability for either operator will help them close the overall speed gap created by the two leaders. By the time our next State of Mobile Networks: India report comes out in the autumn, we may well have a new front runner in the overall speed race.

If you're a smartphone user in India, we'd love to hear about your mobile data experience on India's major operators (and on its smaller operators as well). Have you noticed any trends in your everyday download speeds in the last year? Let us know in the comments below.