Being an archipelago comprised of over 7,000 islands whose topography is mostly mountainous, the Philippines can pose a challenge to mobile network operators looking to expand into its rural regions. When adding to the equation a monsoon season that lasts for five months and can cause devastating disruption, it becomes clear why providing rural coverage is easier said than done.
Infrastructure development aside, the remoteness of some of the rural areas makes it difficult to even maintain a reliable network in those places. For example, after Typhoon Ferdie hit the northernmost islands of Batanes, internet became inaccessible for a year and a half.
The urban-rural 4G Availability divide varies by region
Using definitions from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), along with Opensignal data, we analyzed which regions have the biggest urban-rural divide when it comes to 4G Availability and Download Speed Experience. We found that on average, the difference in 4G Availability between urban and rural locales within any given region was around 14 percentage points, but that varied considerably.
While our users in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) on average spent around 68% of their time on 4G networks both in urban and rural areas — marking no real difference in the two locale types — our smartphone users in the Davao region experienced the largest gap. Our urban users in Davao enjoyed a 4G Availability of 80.9%, but our rural users in the region were able to connect to 4G networks just 55.3% of their time — which meant a 25.6 percentage points lower 4G Availability than their peers in the urban areas.
Opensignal rural users in the Philippines spent the highest amount of time connected to 4G networks — 70.2% — in Central Luzon, and the lowest — just 50% — in the region of Bicol. However, in five more regions, our rural users experienced a 4G Availability lower than 60%: MIMAROPA, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), SOCCSKSARGEN, Davao and Northern Mindanao.
Our urban users had a considerably higher 4G Availability, with no region falling below the 60% mark and just three regions below the 70% mark. Opensignal users in the urban areas of the ARMM region experienced the lower 4G Availability among the urban users of the 17 regions: in fact they were able to connect to 4G networks 65.1% of the time. On the other hand, our users in the National Capital Region — which is classified in its entirety as urban areas — were able to connect to 4G networks the highest amount of time, having an 86.5% 4G Availability. However, two more regions showed an urban 4G Availability above the 80% mark: Central Visayas and Davao, where our urban users could connect to 4G networks respectively 81.2% and 80.9% of their time.
Download Speed Experience is slower in rural areas because users spend more time on 3G networks
Opensignal analyzed our users’ download speeds in urban and rural areas. We observed limited differences, in absolute terms, across the two locales in both 4G Download Speed and 3G Download Speed, but 1.8 Mbps difference in Download Speed Experience.
Normally we expect 4G Download Speed to be much faster in urban areas, because mobile operators usually focus their investments in deploying and upgrading networks in more densely populated zones. However, this was not the case for the Philippines, as our urban and rural users on average experienced similar 4G Download Speeds of 10.7 Mbps and 10 Mbps respectively.
While 3G download speeds were, on average, approximately three times slower compared to the measurements taken on 4G networks, the difference in absolute terms between the 3G Download Speed that our urban and rural users experienced was just 0.7 Mbps. But our users in rural Philippines spent as much as 50% of time connected to 3G in some regions. This meant that their overall Download Speed Experience was dramatically influenced by their 3G speeds, making 3G a far more relevant factor for rural users than for urban users who spend much more time connected to 4G.
While topography can make it more difficult for operators to deploy mobile networks in a region, for some countries like the Philippines where 53% of its population of over 108 million live in rural areas, that is all the more relevant. And for many of those 57 million rural residents with no fixed broadband, wireless connectivity is their only means of accessing the internet, meaning that closing the urban-rural divide becomes critical. In fact, while on average our rural users had a 6.8 Mbps Download Speed Experience, they still spent up to half of their time connected to 3G networks, where their average speed dropped to 2.6 Mbps.